In March of 1991, following the end of Operation Desert Storm, United States Army units occupying the area in southeastern Iraq encompassing Khamisiyah conducted two large scale demolition operations to destroy the Iraqi munitions and facilities in the area. Before the demolition, the Khamisiyah facility was a large ammunition storage depot and it was believed to house only conventional ammunition. When these operations were carried out, it apparently was unknown that the rockets stored in the facilities contained weaponized sarin and cyclosarin chemicals. It wasn’t until later, through inspections done by the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), that the existence of sarin and cyclosarin were discovered. Additionally, traces of these toxic chemicals had spread across hundreds of miles of battlefield placing approximately 100,000, if not more, troops at risk of exposure.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) used computer models to generate an approximate picture of how the toxic chemicals may have spread after the demolition. This model was used as a basis to identify troops who were potentially at risk for exposure to the toxic chemicals. However, the model evolves as officials become equipped with better weather simulations, obtain new CIA weapons data, and continued review of combat logs. All of these factors allow analysts to better compute new exposure probabilities.
Health Effects Associated with Sarin and Cyclosarin
Sarin is a clear, colorless, and tasteless liquid that does not have an odor in its pure form. Sarin can evaporate into a gas, and spread into the environment making it especially harmful. For example, it’s possible to be exposed to sarin/cyclosarin without even knowing it. Specifically, sarin (and cyclosarin) are nerve agents are the most toxic of the known chemical warfare agents. Health effects depend on the amount of exposure to a nerve agent such as sarin or cyclosarin. However, even in very small amounts, nerve agents are highly toxic if inhaled or swallowed, or if they come into contact with the skin or eyes. Nerve agents like sarin/cyclosarin interfere with the central and peripheral nervous system. The following is a list of symptoms associated with an exposure to a low or moderate dose of sarin/cyclosarin and to a large dose of the chemicals:
- Low or Moderate Dose
- Large Dose
- Loss of consciousness
- Respiratory failure possibly leading to death
Symptoms such as fatigue, irritability, nervousness, and memory defects may persist for as long as 6 weeks after recovery from an exposure to nerve agents. As for the long-term health effects associated with sarin/cyclosarin exposure, there is still much to be learned. Unfortunately, there is no scientific information that conclusively answers the question of whether or not there are any observable long-term health effects. Some studies have suggested that severe sarin exposure can cause long-term problems with the central nervous system, such as changes in brain activity. Research published in 2005 compared the cause of death for veterans in the Khamisiyah area and those who were outside the possible exposure area. The results of that study found that total death rates were the same for the two groups, and more specifically, the overall rate of death from cancer were the same in the two groups. However, the study also found that the rate of death from brain cancer was higher among the Gulf War veterans who served in the Khamisiyah area. It should be noted that currently sarin/cyclosarin is not known to cause cancer. But because so much remains unknown about the long-term health effects of these toxic chemicals, research is ongoing.
What’s Next? – The Toxic Exposure Act of 2015
In April of 2015, a bill was introduced in the United States House of Representatives and Senate. This bill, the Toxic Exposure Act of 2015 directs the VA to assign a VA medical center to be a national center for research on the diagnosis and treatment options for descendants of veterans that were exposed to toxins for conditions related to their chemical exposure. Senator Jerry Moran described the act to be about “addressing the painful, residual wounds of war that may impact a service member’s family long after the military operation is over – wounds that may not be evident until decades later when passed on to children and generations to follow.”
The bill isn’t only about exposure related to Agent Orange and other chemicals used in South Vietnam. It is about exposure to chemical toxins for all veterans. This includes those veterans exposed to the toxic fumes released at the Khamisyah Pit.
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