Beginning in January and continuing into February 1991, Iraq ignited or otherwise damaged over 750 oil wells in Kuwait. This destruction resulted in the release of numerous pollutants into the atmosphere, some of which can be, in sufficient concentrations, hazardous to human health.
To fully characterize this threat, numerous national and international organizations were mobilized to conduct air quality monitoring studies from March to December 1991. In general, the concentrations of the contaminants observed during these monitoring programs were below levels seen in the US and did not exceed ambient and occupational air quality standards. The one exception being the levels of particulate matter (PM10) that were measured during this period. The average concentration measured for this contaminant was 354 m g/m3, more than twice the US EPA ambient air quality standard of 150 m g/m3. Furthermore, as was indicated previously, ambient standards are designed to protect all populations including sensitive populations (i.e., sick, elderly, and children) from the onset of disease. Therefore, it could be argued that for Gulf War veterans the level of protection provided by these standards could be overstated.
The RAND Corporation conducted a literature review of the existing scientific literature on the health effects of oil fires. Based on information contained in the literature from animal and human exposure studies and epidemiological data, RAND concluded that the concentrations of volatile organic hydrocarbons, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, metals and criteria pollutants (i.e., sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and lead) were much lower than the levels that are currently known to cause short- or long-term health effects. Even under a very conservative exposure scenario that assumed all troops in the KTO were exposed for an extended period to the concentrations observed, the cumulative dose of contaminants, except particulate matter (i.e., PM10), fell below the levels known to cause health effects.
The question regarding the long-term health effects associated with PM10 is of primary interest. As noted above, PM10 levels were high and typically exceeded US EPA ambient standards. These levels were largely the result of natural and man-made sources in the region, and not solely the result of the oil fires.
RAND cites an absence of epidemiological studies in the peer-reviewed literature for health effects due to particulate matter exposures in the indigenous population as well as US troops. In an occupational setting, however, exposure to high levels of particulate matter for months to decades has resulted in a number of respiratory complaints including silicosis. A determination of whether there could be long-term health impacts on US troops from short-term PM10 exposure is fundamental to this overall investigation and is the subject of a number of planned and ongoing health studies.
A second area of concern is the short, intense exposures experienced by some troops to fall-out and debris (i.e., various solid by-products of combustion) from the oil fires. The principal routes of exposure are through the dermal and inhalation pathways. Other than the occurrence of minor skin rashes, dermal problems associated with crude oil exposure do not appear to be a major concern. With regard to inhalation exposures, self-reported symptoms include eye, nose and throat irritations, and shortness of breath. Health screening, medical evaluations, and diagnoses are not available for those troops so exposed; however, health screening studies have been completed on a group of firefighters deployed to Kuwait and who experienced more severe and longer exposures. These studies indicate that these firefighters are generally in good health and have not experienced any of the symptoms reported by the troops.
Finally, two health risk assessment studies have been conducted to estimate the potential for excess cancers and non-cancers from exposures to the oil fires smoke. That is, estimates were made of the likelihood that exposed troops would experience the onset of disease, including cancers, originating from their exposure to oil fires. These assessments are an integral part of the overall methodology employed to assess possible adverse health effects, and are used to complement the findings of the health effects study.
Risk levels were calculated for all US troop units and were ranked from the highest to lowest. The calculated risk levels were then compared against levels determined to be safe by US EPA. The results of the assessment indicated that in all cases troop unit excess cancer and non-cancer risk levels were below their respective US EPA safe risk levels.
Collectively, 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. And therefore, except for the possibility that some pre-existing respiratory conditions may be exacerbated, one would not expect exposures to the levels of contaminants to result in long-term health affects. However, as noted in the previous section a number of studies are underway to provide further investigation in this area.
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