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IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Release No: 472-00
July 27, 2000

REPORT ASSESSES HEALTH EFFECTS OF AIR QUALITY ON GULF WAR VETERANS

The Department of Defense today released an environmental exposure report that focuses on health effects of Gulf War veterans associated with exposure to particulate matter. The "Particulate Matter Environmental Exposure Report" is based upon analyses contained in a study conducted by an independent researcher. The peer-reviewed study considered the risk of adverse long-term health problems from exposure to particulate matter to be minimal.

Servicemembers deployed to the Gulf War were potentially subjected to several natural and man-made factors capable of causing adverse health effects. The region's air quality was a primary concern due to the high levels of dust and sand particles present in this region of the world. In addition to blowing sand from the desert environment, soot and the by-products of combusted crude oil contributed to the poor air quality. These particles are collectively referred to as particulate matter. Pre-war monitoring data indicate the particulate matter levels in the Kuwait theater of operations are among the highest in the world. These levels are considered "normal" for the region.

Particulate matter is a generic term applied to a broad class of chemically, physically and biologically diverse substances spanning a range of particle sizes. The chemical composition of the samples indicate that roughly 75 percent of the airborne particulate matter consisted of clays, primarily calcium and silica originating from the sand indigenous to the region. Another 10 to 23 percent was soot that originated from a variety of sources, including oil well fires and other industrial sources, and less than 10 percent came from miscellaneous sources.

This report suggests that some personnel with pre-existing respiratory problems may have experienced aggravated symptoms due to the high levels of particulate matter in the air and the dense concentration of the particles. Inhaling high levels of particulate matter could have resulted in several acute symptoms and may have aggravated asthmatic conditions in some soldiers. Typically some U.S. personnnel experienced cold- or flu-like symptoms, including cough, runny nose, eye and throat irritation and shortness of breath. However, these symptoms are generally short-term and reversible. Many of the respiratory complaints experienced during the Gulf War were not solely the result of exposure to high particulate matter levels. It was observed that in many cases, the respiratory problems experienced by some U.S. personnel were also aggravated by the crowded living conditions.

The report also examined the adverse health effects from long-term exposure to silica and soot. When found at high concentrations over a working lifetime in an occupational environment, contaminants can be problematic. Although U.S. personnel were exposed to high levels of particulate matter during the Gulf War, the duration of these exposures and the amount of time that they were exposed to these levels was relatively short when compared with occupational exposures. The report found that the estimated exposures and total doses of contaminants were below human health protection standards. As a result, long-term health problems are not expected. Additionally, the results suggest that there is no link between exposures to particulate matter and the unexplained illnesses reported by some Gulf War veterans.

This report, and all other reports on the special assistant's investigations of Gulf War incidents, can be accessed through the GulfLINK web site http://www.gulflink.osd.mil/pm/ .