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Gulf War and Health: Health Effects of Serving in the Gulf War, Volume 4
Pesticides, including dog flea collars, were widely used by troops in the Persian Gulf to combat the region’s ubiquitous insect and rodent populations; and although guidelines for use were strict, there were many reports of misuse. The pesticides used included methyl carbamates, organophosphates, pyrethroids, and chlorinated hydrocarbons. The use of those pesticides is reported in numerous reports (e.g., RAND 2000), however objective information regarding individual levels of pesticide exposure is generally not available.
Many exposures could have been related to particular occupational activities in the Gulf War. The majority of occupational chemical exposures appear to have been related to repair and maintenance activities, including battery repair (corrosive liquids), cleaning and degreasing (solvents, including chlorinated hydrocarbons), sandblasting (abrasive particles), vehicle repair (asbestos, carbon monoxide, and organic solvents), weapon repair (lead particles), and welding and cutting (chromates, nitrogen dioxide, and heated metal fumes). In addition, troops painted vehicles and other equipment used in the gulf with a chemical-agent-resistant coating either before being shipped to the gulf or at ports in Saudi Arabia. Working conditions in the field were not ideal and recommended occupational-hygiene standards might not have been followed at all times.
Exposure of US personnel to depleted uranium (DU) occurred as the result of “friendly-fire” incidents, cleanup operations, and accidents (including fires). Others might have inhaled DU dust through contact with DU-contaminated tanks or munitions. DU exposure is discussed in more detail in Chapter 2. Assessment of DU exposure, especially high exposure, is considered to be more accurate than assessment of exposure to most other agents because of the availability of biologic monitoring information.
Threat of Chemical and Biologic Warfare
When US troops arrived in the gulf, they had no way of knowing whether they would be exposed to biologic and chemical weapons. Iraq previously had used such weapons in fighting Iran and in attacks on the Kurdish minority in Iraq. Military leaders feared that the use of such weapons in the gulf could result in the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans. Therefore, in addition to the standard vaccinations before military deployment, about 150,000 troops received anthrax vaccine and about 8,000 botulinum toxoid vaccine. In some cases, vaccination records were kept, and they provide an objective measure of exposure in addition to self-reporting by troops.
Troops were also given blister packs of 21 tablets of pyridostigmine bromide (PB) to protect against agents of chemical warfare, specifically nerve gas. Troops were to take PB on the orders of a commanding officer when a chemical-warfare attack was believed to be imminent. Chemical sensors and alarms were distributed throughout the region to warn of such attacks. The alarms were extremely sensitive and could be triggered by many substances, including some organic solvents, vehicle-exhaust fumes, and insecticides. Alarms sounded often and troops responded by donning the confining protective gear and ingesting PB as an antidote to nerve gas. In addition to the alarms, there were widespread reports of dead sheep, goats, and camels, which troops were taught could be indication of the use of chemical or biologic weapons. The sounding of the alarms, the reports of dead animals, and rumors that other units had been hit by chemical-warfare agents caused the troops to be concerned that they would be or had been exposed to such agents.
Despite the small numbers of US personnel injured or killed during combat in the Gulf War, the troops, as in any war, faced the fear of death, injury, or capture by the enemy. After the