DoD releases final report on CARC paint exposure during the Gulf War

WASHINGTON, July 27, 2000 (GulfLINK) - The Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses released today the final version of its environmental exposure report on chemical agent resistant coatings, typically known as CARC. The report examines the exposure of soldiers to polyurethane paint fumes while painting some combat vehicles in preparation for Operation Desert Storm and the possible connection to illnesses some veterans have reported since the Gulf War. As stated in the interim report, CARC paints make up the largest category of paints used on military vehicles and is one of several potentially harmful substances to which some service members were exposed during the Gulf War.

The Presidential Special Oversight Board, appointed to monitor the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses, reviewed the interim report, and based on the lack of new information, recommended closing the investigation.

"The bottom line from the earlier report remains unchanged," said Jeff Prather, an industrial hygienist with the special assistant office's environmental and occupational exposure team. "If you use polyurethane paint without adequate respiratory protection, you're probably going to get sick unless you're working in a well ventilated area. The CARC that was used is a standard polyurethane paint. The hazards we are looking at are standard occupational hazards. The reason the report has gone final is because the oversight board felt that we had adequately addressed the issue."

A fairly small group of Gulf War troops were at risk of exposure to CARC. The majority of them, approximately 200 members of the Florida National Guard's 325th Maintenance Company, were running two major spray-painting operations at the ports of Ad Dammam and Al Jubayl in Saudi Arabia during the deployment. When combat vehicles arrived from Europe in woodland camouflage, it was the job of the 325th to get them painted in the sand colored pattern for desert operations. Because of the need to get the job done without slowing the movement of units into tactical assembly areas, the soldiers did much of the spray painting without proper respirators and other protective gear required under normal operating procedures. Some of the needed equipment wasn't available when painting operations began.

The final report not only focuses on health effects that could be associated with exposure to CARC during spraying operations, but also provides recommendations for improving the safe use of CARC. It clarifies the issue of possible exposure and discusses the scenarios under which people may have been exposed. Prather says the risks involved were not unique to service members.

Although CARC exposure isn't responsible for many of the symptoms and undiagnosed illnesses of some Gulf War veterans, it can cause certain medical problems, said Prather.

CARC paint contains no carcinogenic or cancer causing agents. The component of CARC that's most likely to be harmful is a compound called hexamethylene diisocyanate. If painters inhale high concentrations of it during a spray-painting operation, they could suffer from watery eyes, coughing or shortness of breath. Long-term exposure could lead to respiratory problems. The effects are well known, Prather says.

Another possible risk for soldiers involved in the painting process was inhalation of solvent vapors. According to Prather, solvents used in the process could cause short-term symptoms like dizziness, nausea and light-headedness. However, they pose no long-term problems and would only affect soldiers directly involved with spray painting.

Because of short-term painting operations scattered throughout the theater, no one knows exactly how many soldiers may have been exposed to CARC fumes. The environmental exposure report indicates that they number approximately 500 people, including about 200 soldiers of the 325th Maintenance Company. A number of that unit's soldiers did have health problems during and after the war. The U.S. Army conducted health testing on the 325th in 1992. Since then, several unit members have enrolled in the Department of Defense's Comprehensive Clinical Evaluation Program and received the physical examinations the program provides. This report also offers updated information about the estimated 16 civilian painters from the Anniston Army Depot in Alabama who deployed to the Gulf War to assist with the painting operations.

The report includes important lessons learned from painting operations during the Gulf War. One point is that there are risks to the use of CARC paint - something Prather hopes the environmental exposure report draws attention to.

"We hope the CARC paper does a lot to publicize the fact that while CARC painting is hazardous, it can be done safely if you use the proper equipment," he said.

He also says the risk can be significantly reduced with a little bit of training and the right equipment. For that reason, he feels that people should be prepared in advance for painting operations like the ones tasked to the 325th Maintenance Company.

Another lesson learned from the Gulf War is better medical health surveillance, says Prather. This begins by documenting pre-deployment health status to establish a baseline then continuing to monitor the servicemembers' health throughout the deployment and after the servicemembers' return. He says the services have instituted a questionnaire that will help determine who needs a physical based on possible exposures.

Prather also says that perhaps the most important lesson for units is that there is nothing to be gained by skipping proper safety procedures.

During the investigation into CARC paint, much valuable information was passed to the U.S. Army Surgeon General's office and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Although this investigation is officially completed, that process will continue. Veterans with new or additional information are still encouraged to call the direct veteran's hotline at (800) 497-6261.