Tuesday, August 18, 2009

GULF WAR EXPOSURES: Lewisite Smells Like Geraniums

World War II Lewisite Vesicant (Blister Agent) Gas Identification Poster, 1941-1945

Statement of Anthony Hardie, Gulf War Veteran, Madison, Wis. -- Testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, July 30, 2009

....HD/L/HL.  In the days that followed the informal end of the ground war, small teams from my “unit” combed through former Iraqi sites in Kuwait and Iraq, assessing them, gathering information, and even picking up the occasional souvenir.   In one bunker complex north of the Kuwait bay that a handful of us went through, I was captivated by the lovely fragrance that smelled just like the large red flowers that filled my grandmother’s garden back home and pervaded Iraqi bunkers so hastily evacuated that plates of half-eaten food and loads of personal gear had been left everywhere.  Along with the lovely, captivating geranium fragrance was the pervasive odor that I thought was wet onions.  I found this very odd at the time because there were no onions to be found in even the emptiest of the bunkers. 
If I had been looking at a watch, I could have told you shortly thereafter what the time and date was when my severe, chronic cough began. Like many Gulf War veterans (and Iranian veterans of the Iran-Iraq War who preceded us), it has never subsided. For years, I believed that my black sputum that I coughed up for three months, and the never-ending cough that continued thereafter, was the result of the oil well fire smoke. 
Years later, I was horrified to learn that what I smelled that day were the characteristic odors of Lewisite and Mustard, a classic mixture used heavily by the Iraqis during the Iran-Iraq war. Even still, I discounted that my severe respiratory illness that began very shortly thereafter could have been because of these blister agents, not knowing until more recently that while the damage is immediate, the symptoms of mustard agent exposure don’t show for as long as even 24 to 48 hours after exposure, and that the vapors I inhaled that day—by the fact that they were strong enough to be smelled—were also strong enough to do immediate and lasting damage to my entire respiratory tract that corresponds with my symptoms at the time and since. 
After talking with my doctors, the soft, blackish chunks I coughed up at the end of the Gulf War, some as wide across as a dime or larger, were almost certainly not oil well fire residue, but instead soot-tinged lung tissue being sloughed off after being blistered by these Iraqi chemical warfare agents. And notably, because there were only two or three of us in those bunkers, with me in them the longest, and because none of us were well trained enough to ever recognize these characteristic odors, they were never reported—except to my family, as ironically I searched after the war in Arab shops for the uniquely fragrant, geranium-scented perfume to buy for my mother that I was certain the retreating Iraqi troops had been using so heavily that it had left its scent behind in those bunkers. 
I have heard enough first-hand accounts from other Gulf War ground troops about coming across chemical mines, being hit with isolated chemical attacks, and more that I now firmly believe that the CIA and DOD has no basis for their long-held statements that Iraqi ground commanders never possessed or used chemical weapons during the war. The extent and impact of intelligence failures were widely discussed on and off the battlefield, and if there is further interest and a proper request to do so, I would be happy to provide more information in a closed setting on this issue. 

Sadly for at least 175,000 of my fellow ill Gulf War veterans, VA’s limited scope of GWI research has not even begun to address the health outcomes associated with widespread chemical warfare agent exposures, let alone treatments, information, or advisements that might help improve our health and lives....

Lewisite: Lewisite is a type of chemical warfare agent. This kind of agent is called a vesicant or blistering agent, because it causes blistering of the skin and mucous membranes on contact. 
Lewisite is an oily, colorless liquid in its pure form and can appear amber to black in its impure form. Lewisite has an odor like geraniums. Lewisite contains arsenic, a poisonous element. Lewisite is also known by its military designation, “L.”
Signs and symptoms occur immediately following a lewisite exposure. Lewisite can have the following effects on specific parts of the body:
  • Skin: pain and irritation within seconds to minutes, redness within 15 to 30 minutes followed by blister formation within several hours. The blister begins as a small blister in the middle of the red areas and then expands to cover the entire reddened area of skin. The lesions (sores) from lewisite heal much faster than lesions caused by the other blistering agents, sulfur mustard and nitrogen mustards, and the discoloring of the skin that occurs later is much less noticeable.
  • Eyes: irritation, pain, swelling, and tearing may occur on contact.
  • Respiratory tract: runny nose, sneezing, hoarseness, bloody nose, sinus pain, shortness of breath, and cough
  • Digestive tract: diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.
  • Cardiovascular: “Lewisite shock” or low blood pressure may occur
Mustard Gas:
How sulfur mustard works:
  • Adverse health effects caused by sulfur mustard depend on the amount people are exposed to, the route of exposure, and the length of time that people are exposed.
  • Sulfur mustard is a powerful irritant and blistering agent that damages the skin, eyes, and respiratory (breathing) tract.
  • It damages DNA, a vital component of cells in the body.
  • Sulfur mustard vapor is heavier than air, so it will settle in low-lying areas.
  • Immediate signs and symptoms of sulfur mustard exposure
  • Exposure to sulfur mustard is usually not fatal. When sulfur mustard was used during World War I, it killed fewer than 5% of the people who were exposed and got medical care.
  • People may not know right away that they have been exposed, because sulfur mustard often has no smell or has a smell that might not cause alarm.
  • Typically, signs and symptoms do not occur immediately. Depending on the severity of the exposure, symptoms may not occur for 2 to 24 hours. Some people are more sensitive to sulfur mustard than are other people, and may have symptoms sooner.
Sulfur mustard can have the following effects on specific parts of the body:
  • Skin: redness and itching of the skin may occur 2 to 48 hours after exposure and change eventually to yellow blistering of the skin.
  • Eyes: irritation, pain, swelling, and tearing may occur within 3 to12 hours of a mild to moderate exposure. A severe exposure may cause symptoms within 1 to 2 hours and may include the symptoms of a mild or moderate exposure plus light sensitivity, severe pain, or blindness (lasting up to 10 days).
  • Respiratory tract: runny nose, sneezing, hoarseness, bloody nose, sinus pain, shortness of breath, and cough within 12 to 24 hours of a mild exposure and within 2 to 4 hours of a severe exposure.
  • Digestive tract: abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever, nausea, and vomiting.

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