DoD Re-examines Oil Well Fire Contaminants

WASHINGTON, September 28, 2000 (GulfLINK) - The Department of Defense released today the second edition of its Oil Well Fires Environmental Exposure Report. The revised document highlights what investigators from the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses have learned since the first edition was printed and details what work is still needed to fully explain the health effects associated with exposure to oil well fire smoke.

When the first oil well fires 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. Many American servicemembers were exposed to the smoke from those fires, which was so thick and black it turned day into night. To many, it was the most obvious source of possible contaminants threatening the health of our troops.

The original report was based on the environmental monitoring conducted in 1991. Analysts also used a combination of scientific and historical information, including intelligence reports and computer modeling based on weather and air quality records. Another important source of information was data gathered from personal interviews with almost a thousand veterans. The findings of the original report indicated that the toxin levels contained in the oil well fire smoke were not high enough to cause short or long-term health effects.

When the Presidential Special Oversight Board reviewed the report, they identified some limitations and areas that called for more investigation. That review prompted publication of the updated interim report.

"We wanted to be sure that we could identify for the general public areas in the original report requiring further investigation or amplification," said William Shaughnessy, an environmental science expert for the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses. "In the current release, we republished to identify those areas and to identify who was going to be conducting the follow-on research."

According to Shaughnessy, one major area requiring additional emphasis was particulate matter because it was recognized as a significant contaminant in the air over Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. More than 75 percent of the particulates in the air at the time came naturally from the high levels of sand in the local desert environment, about 23 percent from the oil fires and a minor amount from other sources.

"It was found in very high levels and had the potential for causing adverse health effects," continued Shaughnessy, "So as an offshoot from the original investigation we did an investigation on particulate matter, and to supplement our resources, we brought in experts in the field to help us do that work. The U.S. Army's Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine is also participating in the particulate matter investigations.

"They're modeling the atmospheric dispersion and resuspension of sand and coupling that with troop movement data," Shaughnessy said. "With that information they can determine for a specific unit what their total exposure level was.

"It was a high particulate matter environment from the oil wells and from the sand in the region," said Shaughnessy. "The combination of the two led to diagnosable short-term respiratory problems, such as coughing, runny nose, eye and throat irritation, and some skin irritation."

Also, servicemembers with a history of asthma, bronchitis or other respiratory problems may have been more severely affected during their exposure to the oil well fire smoke. Air monitoring studies showed that exposure was intense in some areas, but was relatively short. Records of reported health effects did not indicate a widespread short-term problem.

Shaughnessy said there are several different contaminants in the smoke from burning oil well fires. They were analyzed by the U.S. Army's Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine and found to be at or below levels measured in U.S. cities, and except for particulate matter, were within U.S. air quality standards.

But as the oversight board review pointed out, CHPPM didn't include every possible contaminant in its original work, and therefore, the estimated work associated with the exposure is somewhat understated. This is the second area that requires additional research.

"CHPPM probably accounted for 90 percent of the total risk through the contaminants they did select," said Shaughnessy. "Now CHPPM is updating their research by adding the additional components."

The third area that requires further investigation is the effect of what's been called an oil rain, which fell on servicemembers who were closest to the burning oil wells.

"Because of their closeness to the fires, some troops were subjected to a lot of fallout, consisting of unburned crude oil, products of combustion and so on," Shaughnessy said. "We think there might be an additional exposure associated with the small group of veterans exposed to that type of environment."

Further research is being done on this subject by CHPPM as well. Their research will involve comparing those troop units and individuals on the oil fields when damaged oil wells sprayed and gushed crude oil to another cohort of soldiers not exposed to the oil rain. Researchers at CHPPM will examine health records in the DoD hospitalizations and Comprehensive Clinical Evaluation Program databases to determine whether exposure to the oil rain adversely affected the exposed troops' health.

The Oversight Board review of the original report confirmed the need for more definitive information regarding the long-term health effects of oil well smoke. The ultimate goal of the report, Shaughnessy continued, is to gain a better understanding of the risk of long-term health effects from this type of exposure.

"That's what the risk assessment is for, to determine what the likelihood of a chronic effect would be from these exposures. We know that the short-term exposures resulted in some short-term symptoms, but for the most part those are short-lived symptoms that have not developed into long-term problems," said Shaughnessy.

Several government and private sector organizations continue the necessary research into the long-term effects of this type of exposure. And CHPPM is working in concert with the Center for Unit Records Research to help establish just how much exposure to oil well fires contaminants our troops endured, based on where their units were during the fires.

The results of these painstaking processes will be one part of the final environmental exposure report on oil well fires, which will only be published when DoD is satisfied that the incident has been thoroughly investigated.