Monday, June 29, 2009.
(Boston, Mass. - June 29, 2009) University Professor Dr. Douglas Dockery of the Harvard University School of Public Health kicked off the RAC's morning presentations with a presentation on Harvard's Kuwaiti oil well fire studies.
Beginning in 1991, Harvard researchers on the ground were measuring environmental impacts of the Kuwait oilwell fires. Later that year, Harvard organized an international conference on the
health effects of the oil well fires and environmental contamination.
The first Kuwait oil well fire was on February 10, 1991, about two-thirds of the way through the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which began in the early morning hours of January 17 of that year and
ended on February 27. Most of the oil well fires were ignited by Iraqi forces in late February 1991, as they retreated in advance The last of the oil well fires were finally extinguished on
November 6, 1991.
Dr. Dockery noted several unique characteristics, including that Kuwait keeps a complete registry of Kuwaitis from birth to death, which were carried safely out of the country at the time of the invasion and that Kuwait paid a stipend to Kuwaitis who remained in country during the invasion and occupation, thereby allowing for easy identification of those who were thus exposed to Gulf War environmental hazards during the war.
According to Dr. Dockery, who serves as Chair of Harvard's Department of Environmental Health, and Professor of Environmental Epidemiology, 37 percent of the 576,861 Kuwaitis received a stipend for having stayed in Kuwait during the invasion and occupation showing which Kuwaitis were remained in Kuwait and had Gulf War exposures. Most of that population centered in Kuwait City and along the coast. About two-thirds of the Kuwaiti population were non-nationals, and most left during the war.
Harvard conducted a public health study, including face-to-face interviews at home between December 3, 2003 and January 29, 2005, with interviews of next of kin for those who were
deceased or unable to answer. The extensive survey included the location of residence during the invasion and occupation, what their experiences were during that time, medical symptoms
before and after the invasion, and date of death for those deceased, and a comprehensive health history.
The study noted symptoms related to trauma and stress, including increased rates of heart attacks, colitis, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms. Increased rates of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) were also noted among those with high Gulf War trauma and stress.
The study showed a host of increased health conditions and symptoms, unrelated to trauma and stress, in the Kuwaiti population who remained during the invasion and occupation. The highest rate of symptoms included fatigue, including severe fatigue, headaches, joint pain, and moodiness. Other conditions that were ranked high included sleep problems, unwellness after exercise, feeling not rested, muscle and body pain, dizziness, light sensitivity, breathing trouble, problems concentrating, memory problems, depression, irritability, anxiety, sinus problems, hand-shoulder and arm or leg pain, back problems, and gas.
It was noted by a member of the RAC that nearly all of these symptoms and conditions are among those most commonly reported among Gulf War veterans.
Anthony Hardie, a Gulf War veteran member of the panel, noted that he and "countless other Gulf War veterans" in Kuwait following the war experienced oil well fire smoke so thick it could be seen "in front of [his] hand" as it wafted by. He noted that his location was near the Kuwaiti International Airport in heavily populated Kuwait City, and that all the symptoms ranked as high were virtually the same as experienced by him and countless other ill Gulf War veterans.
According to Dr. Dockery's Harvard University School of Public Health biography:
Dr. Dockery and his colleagues have studied the health effects of air pollution exposures in populations who have been followed for up to twenty-five years. That research has increasingly
pointed to combustion-related particles as being causally linked to increased morbidity and mortality even at the relatively low concentrations observed in developed countries today. Dr.
Dockery and his colleagues have reported that episodes of particulate air pollution are consistently associated with increased daily mortality, increased hospital admissions and emergency room visits, exacerbation of asthma, increased respiratory symptoms and lower lung function. Long-term follow-up studies have shown particulate air pollution is associated with shortened life expectancy in adults and increased chronic respiratory illness and lower lung function in children. This research has led to the current debate on the role of particulate air pollution in producing adverse effect effects and to the re-evaluation of air quality standards both nationally and internationally.
Dr. Dockery's current research is attempting to more specifically identify the chemical and physical characteristics of those particles responsible for the observed adverse health effects. Current studies also are attempting to understand the pathways of acute cardiovascular events associated with air pollution exposure and to link these epidemiologic finding with toxicologic studies of particle effects. He also is assessing the health benefits of air pollution controls.
In addition, the methods developed to assess air pollution health effects epidemiologically are being applied to other environmental hazards including contamination of water supplies.