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Oil Well Fires Not Linked to Health Problems

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 13, 1998 – An extensive DoD investigation shows no clear links between Kuwaiti oil well fires set by Iraq during the Gulf War and long-term health problems reported by U.S. veterans.

The investigation identified units and personnel most and least exposed to airborne contaminants caused by the fires that could lead to cancer and other diseases.

"With one exception, our health assessments show that there is unlikely to be long- or short-term health effects from these exposures," said Dale Vesser, deputy special assistant for Gulf War illnesses and a retired Army lieutenant general. The exception, Vesser said, were the particulate matter concentrations observed during the period. Particulate matter levels were as much as three times the U.S. ambient standard and were largely the result of natural or background sources. Research suggests that background sources and the fires could have exacerbated pre-existing respiratory conditions such as asthma, he said.

U.S. troops operating near the fires in 1991 reported short-term symptoms, including difficulty breathing and shortness of breath. They inhaled sooty air and coughed black phlegm. But the carbon particles and oil droplets released by the fire were too large to penetrate deeply into the soldiers' lungs, and the black phlegm bears witness to their bodies' efficient discharge of the contaminants, Vesser said.

The Rand Corp. reviewed scientific literature on the potential short and long-term health consequences of exposure to the fires. Rand concluded that, overall, the concentration of most pollutants measured were below U.S. ambient and occupational standards and should not result in the onset of disease in the long term. Rand also cited an absence of epidemiological studies on the indigenous population in the peer-reviewed literature and concluded additional health studies of U.S. troops deployed to the region during the fires are necessary.

Vesser credited the lower contaminant levels to the fires' intensity. The extreme heat of the fires destroyed many of the contaminants. Coarser particles formed a high cloud that removed the pollutants from the area and generally out to sea, he said. In fact, exposure levels measured during the fires indicated fewer airborne pollutants than in Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix or Los Angeles during the same period.

Since the DoD investigation began, the Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., and its predecessor, the Army Environmental Hygiene Agency, conducted two health risk assessments. The assessments employed models that projected excess cancers and noncancerous diseases (damage to the cardiopulmonary, renal, neurological and reproductive systems).

The Army calculated risk levels for all U.S. troops, then compared them against Environmental Protection Agency standards. In all cases, projected troop risk levels for cancer and noncancerous diseases fell below levels the EPA considers safe for a normal population.

Future investigations will fully assess long-term health effects of exposure to breathable particulates, Bernard Rostker, special assistant for Gulf War illnesses, said in a statement before the briefing. Although DoD continues struggling to identify causes of reported illnesses, he said the findings will benefit future operations.

"In the future, any natural or manmade threats existing in a potential theater of operation should be identified and fully accounted for during the operational planning phase," Rostker said.

More information about this and other Gulf War illness issues is available on the Internet at www.gulflink.osd.mil. To provide information you think is pertinent to the investigation, call the incident hot line at (800) 472-6719. For medical assistance and information, active duty service members should call (800) 796-9699, and veterans should call the Department of Veterans Affairs hot line at (800) 749-8387.

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