Presence of Chemical Warfare Agents at Cement Factory

Assessed as "Unlikely"

WASHINGTON, April 15, 1999 (GulfLINK) The Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses released today a case narrative that assesses whether chemical warfare agents were present at an industrial area outside Kuwait City. The narrative focuses on chemical alerts and soil samples taken from the area and examines the events that occurred before, during and after the incident. This investigation was undertaken in response to veterans' testimony to the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, and to follow-up reports published last year in Chapter 11 of the MITRE Corporation's draft report, "Iraqi Chemical Warfare: Analysis of Information Available to DoD."

"What makes the investigation doubly important is that we identified a number of lessons to be learned as a result of the chain of events that occurred at the cement factory, said Dr. Bernard Rostker, the special assistant for Gulf War illnesses. "We know of more areas where improvements need to be made and were working on making them."

On March 12, 1991, a detachment from the 2nd Marine Division investigated a site outside of Kuwait City thought to be an Iraqi chemical weapon filling station. The team searched and inspected the area, known as the "cement factory." Although a thorough examination of the buildings for chemical warfare agents was negative, the team did find chemical protective equipment and other material that some thought might be related to chemical warfare. Two Fox Nuclear, Biological, Chemical Reconnaissance vehicles used by the Marines alerted for possible chemical warfare agents on the perimeter of the site.

Vehicle operators printed alert records from both vehicles, although only one report has been located. The existing report and interviews with unit personnel indicate the Fox identified a chemical substance, although not a chemical warfare agent. According to eyewitness accounts soil samples were taken and sent to the U.S. for laboratory analysis. A team of chemists at the Army Chemical Research Development and Engineering Center in Edgewood, Maryland, analyzed the soil samples and noted that the samples were improperly packaged and may not have been airtight, which might have allowed agents to dissipate. However, their final conclusion was that there was no evidence of any known chemical warfare agent in the samples. Unfortunately, the Marines were never informed of the laboratory's findings, so the group leader logically concluded that the cement factory was a possible chemical mine filling station.

According to James Curren, OSAGWI's lead investigator on the Cement Factory incident, the absence of a positive test result was the reason the individuals involved were not notified.

"In 1991 there were no real formal guidelines established for notification of sample results that did not identify chemical warfare agents," said Curren.

"Had the samples tested positive for chemical warfare agents, the Marines should have been notified by the U.S. Army intelligence unit that took control of the samples," he added.

An analysis of the Fox tapes provides additional information and insights not available to the group leader nor members of his unit in 1991. After one of the Fox tapes was uncovered in 1998 during our investigation, the U.S. Army Soldier and Biological Chemical Command analyzed the tape. According to the chemical command's assessment, the substance detected by the Fox was probably xylene. This assessment was corroborated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Xylene is used as a solvent and enters the atmosphere primarily from fuel emissions and exhausts linked with use in gasoline.

Evidence presented by the Fox tape, the soil analysis and the lack of casualties from exposure to chemical agents make a very strong case that there were no chemical warfare agents at the cement factory. However, since one Fox tape is missing and the soil samples may have been packaged incorrectly, it is not feasible to completely rule out the possibility of chemical warfare agents.

"Upon reviewing all available evidence, our investigators determined that the exposure of U.S. armed forces in the area must be assessed as unlikely," said Rostker. "However, we have also identified a number of lessons to be learned from our investigation at the cement factory," Rostker added. The narrative suggests the need for improvements in the areas of communication, sampling procedures, and transporting evidence for analysis.

Rostker reminds veterans that this is an interim, not a final report. The report will be re-issued and the assessments revised, as new evidence warrants. "I hope that veterans will read this report. If there is an error or information that we missed, we encourage veterans with additional information to call us toll free at 1-800-497-6261," he said.