Oil well fire contaminants below hazardous levels


WASHINGTON, November 5, 1998 (GulfLINK) - One of the most dramatic conditions of the Gulf War resulted from the fires of more than 600 oil wells set ablaze by retreating Iraqi forces January through late February 1991. The huge columns of smoke were the most visible source of possible contaminants to which U.S. troops were exposed.

 "We know from anecdotal evidence that the intensity of the exposure was unprecedented," Dr. Bernard Rostker, special assistant for Gulf War illnesses, said. "We know that some veterans were, on occasion, subjected to short-term exposures where they were covered with fallout from the fires. This included smoke, oil, soot and other by-products of combustion from the oil well fires. We believe it was important to take a detailed look at this exposure."

The 118-page environmental exposure report released today is one of the most comprehensive investigations of this environmental issue, Rostker said. Analysts used a combination of scientific, historical and anecdotal information. Included were nearly 1,000 veteran's reports, special follow-on interviews, historical information, intelligence reports, air quality data bases, computer modeling to back-fill data and risk calculations. The results of this investigation were accompanied by a scientific review of the literature on the possible effects of oil fire smoke exposure prepared for the Office of the Secretary of Defense by RAND. Overall, the findings from both indicate that the toxin levels, with the exception of particulate matter, were not high enough to cause short or long term health effects.

 "The lofting effect created by winds and local weather conditions combined to reduce the impact of the fires on military and civilian populations," Rostker said. "And while exposure was sometimes intense, it was of a short duration. Air monitoring studies and a review of records of reported adverse health effects did not reveal a widespread short-term problem."

 More than 5,000 environmental samples were taken during the oil fires by U.S. and international scientists. Concentrations of contaminants were at or below levels measured in U.S. cities, and were within US air quality standards, with the exception of particulates. More than 75 percent of the particulates arose from the high background levels of sand, and not from the oil fires.

The levels of most pollutants measured in the Gulf War were below U.S. ambient and occupational standards and were much lower than those known or expected to cause short- or long-term effects, the report said.  

Because of the potential for adverse health effects, there were some concerns that exposure to oil well fires might be related to increased cancer rates and other health effects, such as cardio-pulmonary, kidney, neurological, or reproductive damage. Risk assessment studies indicate that for all troop units deployed to the Gulf, the potential for increased cancers and other health effects were below the risk levels established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

 These findings were supported by the RAND report. The information reported in this scientific literature review was based on approximately 2,500 scientific articles. RAND concluded that, even with very conservative assumptions about exposures, the concentrations of contaminants contained in the smoke (other than particulate matter) were much lower than the levels that are currently known to cause disease in the long-term.

 Some troops, who had a pre-existing lung problem, such as asthma or chronic bronchitis, may have had a worsening of their systems during their exposure to the oil well smoke. This is consistent with the types of lung problems observed in other populations exposed to air pollution.

 The results of the health effects and risk assessment studies suggest that, with the exception of particulate matter, the concentrations of contaminants were at levels below those that are known to cause short- or long-term health effects. Exposures to the levels of contaminants that would lead to the development of long-term health problems are not expected, with the exception of the possibility that some pre-existing respiratory conditions might have been exacerbated.

 While this information presents reassuring news for veterans exposed to the oil well fire smoke, more definitive information regarding the long-term health effects of particulate matter is needed. Rostker says this prompted additional research. A number of studies are underway or planned.

In a study conducted by the Boston Environmental Hazards Center of the Boston Veterans Affairs Medical Center, researchers are assessing respiratory status in relation to exposure to oil fire pollutants. The objective is to evaluate the relationship between measures of lung infection and respiratory symptoms, and correlation's of exposure. The study's results, expected in December this year, will provide further knowledge about the effect of acute, high-level exposure to airborne particulate matter on respiratory health status.

 The Iowa Persian Gulf Study assessed the prevalence of self-reported symptoms and illnesses among military personnel from the state of Iowa deployed during the Gulf War, compared to non-deployed active duty military personnel. Preliminary results indicated that Gulf War veterans had a higher self-reported prevalence of medical conditions. Planned follow- on studies involve health screening and medical exams to validate the self-reported symptoms. In particular, 200 veterans will undergo medical exams and pulmonary function testing to validate the self-reports of asthma and chronic bronchitis. Results are expected in 1999.

 Two separate but parallel studies are being conducted to assess the health impact from exposure to respirable particulate matter. In the first study, The International Center of Environmental Health is conducting a literature search on the health effects associated with exposure to silica (the principal component of sand and particulate matter in the region). Results are expected this December. In the second study, the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine is conducting exposure modeling to estimate the levels of particulate matter to which U.S. troops were exposed while deployed in the Gulf region. These studies will allow for an overall estimate of risk associated with exposure to particulate matter. The results of the modeling study are expected in August 1999.

"These studies are in response to important extensions of our investigation of the health effects of the oil well fires. RAND's research did not reach a definitive conclusion on the health effects of particulate matter exposures. While the high level of particulate matter was mainly due to short term natural background conditions, we need to determine whether there may be long-term health impacts on U.S. troops from short-term particulate matter exposure," Rostker said.

 This is the second environmental exposure report released by Rostker's office. The first environmental exposure investigation report, released last month, focused on the effects of depleted uranium. Rostker asks veterans to review this report and provide feedback.

 "This is an interim, not a final report. As you look through the materials, if you have comments, corrections or any information that will help us better understand the impact of oil smoke exposures, we would like to hear from you. Please call the incident reporting line toll-free at 1-800-472-6719. First-hand accounts are a valuable component of our investigation. With your help, we will be able to report more accurately on the events surrounding oil fire smoke exposures," Rostker said.

 The special assistant's office continues the investigation of specific events that occurred during the Gulf War and to better understand what may be causing Gulf War illnesses. Rostker plans to release findings in six additional investigations by the end of the year. Topics include: Air Campaign, Cement Factory, Edgewood Tapes, Medical Record Keeping, Vaccine Administration and the M256 Chemical Agent Detection Kit.