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DoD Says 98,910 Exposed to Low Levels of Nerve Agent

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 28, 1997 – Ten months after estimating 20,000 U.S. soldiers may have been exposed to Iraqi nerve gas during the Persian Gulf War, DoD revised the figure to 98,910. Despite the dramatic rise in numbers, however, officials said they still cannot link reported health problems to the sarin nerve agent.

Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said July 24 there is no clinical evidence troops were exposed, and even if they had been exposed, long-term effects were unlikely. "Current medical evidence indicates that long-term health problems are not likely from brief low-level exposure to nerve agents," he said.

The possibility of low-level chemical exposure occurred when soldiers demolished an Iraqi weapons cache at Khamisiyah, Iraq, March 10, 1991. Since announcing the Khamisiyah incident in June 1996, DoD and the CIA have worked jointly to determine how far the plume of vaporized nerve agent produced by the weapons destruction traveled. They estimated prevailing winds would have carried the nerve gas cloud over a much larger area than was previously thought, primarily in a southerly direction into Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Determining this area and the troops who were in it became known as the Khamisiyah plume analysis.

Officials now conclude:

  • Soldiers destroyed about 500 of 1,200 unmarked chemical rockets in an open pit at Khamisiyah.
  • Only 18 percent of the nerve agent was released into the atmosphere.
  • Nerve agent released was composed of 1 percent that vaporized, 1 percent that was released as liquid droplets, 6 percent that evaporated from soil and 10 percent that evaporated from wood.

"We're confident of the accuracy of the analysis released [July 24] because of the rigor of the scientific research we've applied to better understanding this event," said Bernard Rostker, DoD special assistant for Gulf War illnesses.

Just as they did for the 20,000, Rostker said, DoD officials will begin next week contacting the larger group of veterans for interviews and invite them to register in either the DoD or Department of Veterans Affairs clinical investigation programs.

A VA scientist reiterated no U.S. units were close enough to the demolitions to experience any noticeable health effects at the time of the event. "As we understand it today, there were no risks or very low risks [to U.S. service members]," Susan Mather said. "At this point in time, we feel that these levels are very near where industrial workers would be exposed and not experience health problems."

According to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculations for the general population, 35 milligram-minutes (the application of one milligram during one minute) of sarin per cubic meter will incapacitate an individual, and 100 milligram-minutes per cubic meter will produce fatalities. DoD officials calculate the dose of agent in the Gulf War was greater than the general population level of 0.01296 milligram-minutes of sarin per cubic meter, but well below the noticeable health affects level of one milligram-minute per cubic meter. They estimated the range of exposure based on CIA computer models.

Officials know the immediate effects of sarin exposure, but not what the long-term effects might be -- or if low-level exposure is behind the reported illnesses of thousands of Gulf War veterans. Backed by widespread government and private epidemiological research, Rostker's office is investigating and publishing reports on incidents that could shed light on the illnesses. Rostker also has opened a dialog with thousands of Gulf War veterans through meetings, telephone interviews and the Internet.

"As the president has directed, we will leave no stone unturned in our investigation," Rostker told reporters at the Pentagon. "We have several investigations ongoing and welcome any information people have which will contribute to our efforts," he said. "Much of what we know about incidents like Khamisiyah is directly related to information we've received from Gulf War veterans." He urged veterans with information to contact either DoD at (800) 796-9699 or VA at (800) 749-8387.

"The health of Gulf War veterans is extremely important to us," Rostker said. "DoD and VA are committed to providing the best possible medical care to all veterans and equally committed to gaining a full understanding of all the possible health effects of service during the war. As we learn more about the events during the Gulf War, we will continue to keep veterans informed."

More information about Gulf War illness investigations is at DoD's "GulfLink" web site, http://www.gulflink.osd.mil.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageSarin Toxicity Chart  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageThis map depicts a computer modeling of possible exposure to the nerve agent sarin by U.S. troops exploding Iraqi rockets in an open pit at Khamisiyah, Iraq, March 10, 1991. The darker area, where first noticeable effects would have been felt, is approximately 10 miles long by three miles wide.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageThis map depicts modeling of a computer analysis of the plume of vaporized nerve agent created when troops destroyed sarin-laced rockets in the Khamisiyah pit. Based on multiple Central Intelligence Agency computer models, the "low level exposure area" represents the estimated size and direction of the plume immediately following the destruction of weapons at Khamisiyah.  
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