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Iraqi Oil Well Fires Not a Major Health Threat

Part of anti-war-think is the possibility Saddam Hussein might set Iraq’s 1,500 oil wells ablaze. It’s not unlikely since Saddam did just that to 600 Kuwaiti oil wells in 1991.

The anti-warriors forecast such sabotage would have catastrophic consequences.

"No one anticipated that Saddam Hussein would burn Kuwaiti oil fields, causing an epic health and environmental disaster. No one knows what he could do now," shrieked Physicians for Social Responsibility in a recent media release.

Greenpeace claims, "Fires from 600 deliberately damaged Kuwaiti oil wells … created a blanket of soot, gases and aggressive chemicals [that] led to immediate respiratory problems in local populations and generated serious long-term risks of birth defects and cancer in exposed people."

The media have also jumped on the oil fire-scare bandwagon.

The Associated Press reported, "The wind-borne pollution [from Kuwait] touched off health and environmental problems far beyond the Gulf." The AP failed to elaborate further on what the health problems were.

Agence France-Presse reported, "The release of oil and smoke from [Iraqi] fires would likely have long-term health effects." Again, the alleged health effects were unspecified.

A Missouri newspaper even found a Gulf War vet who "suspects his exposure to fuel and chemicals from the burning oil wells may have contributed to his memory loss, blurred vision, throat problems, nerve damage and muscle damage."

Would burning oil wells cause health calamities?

First, there’s no question the Kuwaiti oil well fires produced much pollution.

Peak soot emissions were equivalent to 3 million heavy-duty diesel trucks being driven at 30 miles per hour, according to a 1992 study in the journal Science. A May 1991 report estimated the then-526 burning wells emitted 3.8 million pounds of particles into the atmosphere per hour.

That said, virtually all published studies of people exposed to those emissions haven’t reported significant health effects.

A U.S. Army health risk assessment in December 1991 characterized the long-term health effects for exposed troops and civilian employees as "minimal."

The risk of cancer  based on many worst-case assumptions  was estimated to be about 3 "extra" cancers per 1,000,000 people exposed to the emissions. Even if true, this "extra" risk would not be detectable given about 300,000 to 400,000 of those people will develop cancer anyway.

The Army reported the risk of health effects other than cancer to be above levels considered acceptable by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA standards, however, are set far below levels known to cause health effects.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted surveys of workers in Kuwait City and firefighters in the oil fields in October 1991. Blood samples were tested and compared with a group of people living in the U.S. Although the median concentration of certain substances (volatile organic compounds or VOCs) was quite elevated among firefighters, VOC concentrations in non-firefighting personnel were equal or lower than levels found among people in the U.S. survey.

A May 2002 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology compared postwar disease incidence between veterans exposed to the oil well fires and veterans not exposed  a total of 405,142 study subjects. "These data do not support the hypothesis that Gulf War veterans have an increased risk of postwar morbidity from exposure to Kuwaiti oil well fire smoke," concluded U.S. Navy researchers.

A November 2002 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives considered 1,560 Gulf War veterans, 94 percent of whom were in the Gulf theater during the oil well fires and 21 percent who remained for more than 100 days during the fires. "These findings do not support speculation that exposures to oil fire smoke caused respiratory symptoms among veterans," concluded the University of Iowa researchers.

Harvard School of Public Health researchers reported in 1999 the acute toxicity of particles from the Kuwaiti fires were no more "toxic" than particles collected from the air of St. Louis, Mo., or Washington, D.C.

A postwar survey conducted in Kuwaiti clinics and emergency rooms reported an increase in visits for upper respiratory irritation, but there was no documented evidence of an increase in visits for acute upper and lower respiratory infections or asthma, reported the World Federation of Public Health Associations in 1997.

Faced with the lack of evidence of health effects, anti-warriors might counter that it has only been 12 years since the Kuwaiti oil well fires and health effects like cancer may take 20 or more years to develop.

Perhaps. On the other hand, there’s no persuasive evidence that air pollution  regardless of its magnitude  has ever caused a single case of cancer.

It’s no wonder the anti-warriors attempt to alarm the public with vague warnings of health effects from potential oil well fires  one look at the Kuwaiti evidence and their scare goes up in smoke. 

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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