James Meikle / The Guardian UK – 2004-08-10 10:21:46
(August 3, 2004) — US investigators researching illnesses suffered by veterans of the first Gulf war yesterday insisted that all troops and civilians in the area might have been exposed to low levels of chemical agents.
Material was blasted into the environment by bombing attacks on Iraqi chemical plants and munition center ds during the war, and by demolition by allied forces afterwards, witnesses told Lord Lloyd’s independent inquiry into claims by British veterans that they had been made ill by their service.
None of the witnesses from US congressional investigations attempted to quantify the exact levels of exposure, but Robert Haley, from the University of Texas, who has both examined veterans and studied animal experiments, is today expected to say that low-level agents do in fact cause detectable brain injuries.
“All persons in the theatre may have been exposed,” said Keith Rhodes, chief technologist for the government accountability office (GAO), an investigating arm of the US Congress.
The GAO said recently that the US government’s models for assessing the number of soldiers who might have been exposed to agents from the plume caused by the destruction of a weapons bunker at Khamisayah, in southern Iraq, after the war could not be supported. The US government estimated that just over 100,000 US troops may have been exposed, and the Ministry of Defence in Britain has admitted that 9,000 British troops may have been exposed.
But Dr Rhodes said: “The concern for you all is that your MoD completely relied on [US] department of defence modelling, so any estimation of exposure, or any estimation of concentration of material, or any estimation of who was or who was not under the plume, is at the mercy of the department of defence model.” He added that Dr Haley’s work was showing “physiological damage to veterans as a result of low-level exposure”.
James Tuite, an adviser to an earlier investigation of Gulf war illnesses, said that there was growing credible scientific experience, in addition to substantial anecdotal evidence, that “sub-acute levels of airborne chemical warfare agents were present within the theatre of operations”.
About 14,000 chemical agent alarms deployed by US forces sounded on average two to three times a day “for a total of approximately 42,000 alarms per day for 42 days” — up to 1.76m alarms during the war. Yet the US department of defence asserted all were false alarms, and argued that exposure to chemical weapons for unprotected people was “painful, debilitating and often deadly”. There had been no such effects seen in the Gulf, the US government had said.
Christopher Shays, a Republican who chairs the congressional sub-committee on the issue, said in a written submission to the Lloyd inquiry that the GAO study was significant. “Caught using bad science to support worse policies, the department of defence can no longer defend the proposition veterans’ illnesses are not related to battlefield exposures. We shared that battlefield with British troops. The GAO findings have profound implications for them, and for civilian populations in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iran.”
Bernie Sanders, an independent member of the House of Representatives from Vermont, said: “To say to someone who is ill, who may be dying, who cannot go to work … because we do not understand your illness, we cannot compensate you, or that you are different from someone whose war wound we understand, is very upsetting.”
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