After an extensive investigation into the health effects of oil well fires during the Gulf War, the Department of Defense released today an updated version of its "Oil Well Fires Environmental Exposure Report." The report reconfirms that except for particulate matter, the concentration of contaminates from the oil well fires was at levels below those known to cause short- or long-term health effects.
When the report was published in 1998, it was intended to be a comprehensive investigation of the environmental threat created by retreating Iraqi forces in January and February of 1991 when they set more than 600 oil wells on fire. The initial health effects and risk assessment studies have been augmented by research done in the last two years. These show that except for the possibility that some pre-existing respiratory conditions might have been exacerbated, one would not expect exposures to the levels of contaminants to result in the onset of disease in the long term.
The Presidential Special Oversight Board reviewed the original report and confirmed that more definitive information regarding the long-term health effects of oil well smoke was needed. Researchers at the U.S. Army's Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine are currently studying the effect oil rain and those units who were the closest to the burning oil wells. Researchers at CHPPM will examine DoD's hospitalization records and the Comprehensive Clinical Evaluation Program databases to determine whether exposure to the oil rain adversely affected the exposed troops' health.
The oil well fires burned over a period of about nine months, and released numerous pollutants, some of which have been known to cause adverse health effects or disease in humans. Because of the proximity of U.S. troops, concerns about the effects of the fires on them were high. Military personnel saw a dark sky at noon, inhaled sooty air and coughed black phlegm. The intensity of the fires resulted in a high combustion efficiency and subsequently, a lower pollutant concentration. Fortunately, those highly visible, irritating effects of the oil well fires were caused by carbon particles and oil droplets too large to penetrate deeply into the soldiers' respiratory systems.
Air quality monitoring programs conducted during this timeframe indicated that the concentrations of hazardous contaminants in the oil fire smoke, with the exception of particulate matter, were comparable to those of U.S. cities and did not exceed U.S. ambient and occupational air quality standards. However, short-term symptoms were reported by some troops. Some of these problems included coughing, black mucous in nasal discharge, eye and throat irritation, skin rashes, shortness of breath, and exacerbation of existing respiratory conditions such as asthma or bronchitis.
The levels of particulate matter observed in the region were high and had the potential for causing short-term or acute symptoms. The high particulate matter levels were not merely the result of the oil fires, but largely the result of natural background conditions. A separate environmental exposure report on particulate matter explores this subject more thoroughly. The full text of these reports can be viewed on GulfLINK at http://www.gulflink.osd.mil/owf_ii .