Report Probes Risks of CARC Paint

Exposure to Gulf War Veterans

WASHINGTON, February 24, 2000 (GulfLINK) - The Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses released today an environmental exposure report that 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. Chemical agent resistant coatings - CARC - 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.

Jeff Prather, one of the authors of the report and a certified industrial hygienist with the special assistant's environmental and occupational exposure team, stated that the report not only focuses on health effects that could be associated with exposure to CARC during spraying operations, but provides recommendations for improving the safe use of CARC. Most importantly, he said, they wanted to clarify the issue of possible exposure.

"Then, of course, we wanted to discuss the scenarios under which people could have been exposed," he said.

A relatively small population of Gulf War troops were at risk of exposure to CARC. Approximately 200 members of the Florida National Guard's 325th Maintenance Company were responsible for operating two major spray-painting sites at the ports of Ad Dammam and Al Jubayl in Saudi Arabia. During the rapid deployment, many combat vehicles arrived from Europe in woodland camouflage, making them easy targets in the desert. The 325th coordinated the task of painting vehicles for desert operations without slowing the movement of units into tactical assembly areas. However, in the rush to get the job done quickly, soldiers initially performed much of the spray-painting without proper respirators and other protective gear required under normal operating procedures. Such equipment became available after painting operations commenced.

"They were a direct support maintenance company," Prather said. "They typically worked on bringing vehicles up to mechanical standard. So the personal protective equipment you normally wear when painting was not something they had in their supply."

Prather said that despite its exotic name, CARC is primarily a standard polyurethane paint of the type often used in painting automobiles.

"Polyurethane paints are used in numerous industrial processes in the civilian world," Prather said. "The only thing that distinguishes CARC from some other polyurethane paint is its ability to provide easy decontamination. If you use some other kind of paint, a chemical agent can seep into the paint and it would be very difficult to decontaminate."

The most notable and potentially harmful compound in CARC is called hexamethylene diisocyanate, or HDI - a compound needed to harden the paint into a smooth, strong plastic coating. If high concentrations of HDI are inhaled during the spray-painting process, those exposed can suffer from coughing, shortness of breath and watery eyes. Long-term exposure could even lead to respiratory problems, in particular asthma.

Aside from the risks incurred from breathing the CARC vapors while painting, soldiers involved in the process may also have inhaled the vapor of other solvents. Prather said those solvents could have been responsible for short-term symptoms of nausea, dizziness or light-headedness immediately, but pose no long-term problems. Only people directly involved with spray-painting operations would have been subject to these symptoms.

"One thing that we can say is that it's not the cause of the undiagnosed illnesses that thousands of veterans are facing. We know that this is a limited problem," said Prather. "A lot of people had dealings with CARC paint because it was on the vehicles, but we know that dry CARC is not a hazard."

Exposure to the resistant coating vapors does present some health risks when used incorrectly, but Prather said the paint does not contain carcinogenic compounds.

Some members of each service have reported illnesses believed to be connected to Gulf War service, but CARC exposure was only a risk to soldiers involved in specific painting operations. The Navy did not repaint equipment, because it has no unique camouflage requirements. The Air Force uses similar polyurethane coatings, but not CARC paint. For the little painting required, the Air Force had well equipped facilities in place, complete with all appropriate protective equipment for their painters. Additionally, due to a shortage of CARC paint, the Marine Corps prepared their vehicles using brushes and rollers with a latex paint, thereby largely avoiding the risk of breathing paint spray.

That doesn't mean the members of the 325th Maintenance Company were the only people possibly exposed.

"There were other short-term painting operations throughout the theater at different times in different locations," Prather said, "but the number of vehicles handled was much less."

No one knows exactly how many soldiers were involved in all those painting operations, but Prather says that it is fewer than 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. For that reason, the Army conducted health testing on the 325th in 1992. Skin rashes and recurring breathing difficulties were among the symptoms reported. Since then, several members of the unit have received physical examinations within the Department of Defense's Comprehensive Clinical Evaluation Program, but their health problems don't seem to point to CARC paint exposure as the cause for their symptoms.

He said the report concludes with lessons learned from painting operations during the Gulf War. One observation in the report is that current military doctrine does not contain sufficient procedures outlining methods for dealing with rapid painting required by a deployment. Also, troops tasked to spray paint vehicles were not well prepared or equipped to protect themselves against potential paint-related hazards.

"We could have significantly reduced the risks to this unit with a limited number of respirators and a little bit of training," Prather says. He suggests units be identified with the ability, training and equipment to quickly establish paint facilities at ports of debarkation.

The report stresses the need for pre- and post-deployment medical screening, establishing a baseline health status for each deploying servicemember.

Final recommendations in the report also include modifying military doctrine to ensure that occupational safety and health standards are met by adding procedures outlining the methods for painting equipment prior to deployment. The mission should be assigned to appropriate units prior to deployment, allowing units to obtain the required procedural and safety training, procure personal protective equipment, and plan for assignment of on-site safety professional and monitoring activities. It also suggests options for decreasing the exposure potential of individuals spray-painting CARC.

Veterans with new or additional information should call the Direct Veteran's Hotline at (800) 497-6261. Additionally, any veterans desiring a free, in-depth medical examination should call the DoD's Comprehensive Clinical Evaluation Program at (800) 796-9699 or the VA's Persian Gulf Registry at 1-800-PGW-VETS to enroll.