Written by the Editors of the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette
(Fort Wayne, Ind. - October 14, 2009) - Terrorists and hidden bombs aren’t the only threat facing American soldiers in Iraq. As Devon Haynie’s story Monday explained, environmental hazards also pose dangerous, even deadly, threats to armed forces.
Hearings last week and in August drew attention to how National Guard members from Indiana, West Virginia and Oregon were exposed to hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium 6.
It was in the chemicals Iraqis had placed into pipes that pump water into oil wells. The exposure came while the soldiers were guarding contract workers from KBR at the Qarmat Ali Water Treatment Plant in Basrah.
Exposure to environmental hazards – some by accident, others not so accidental – is nothing new to the U.S. military. During World War II, soldiers were exposed to mustard gas. In Vietnam, it was the herbicide Agent Orange. During the first Gulf War in 1991, tens of thousands of soldiers reported symptoms that may or may not be related to oil well fires, chemical weapons, anthrax vaccine and other environmental threats. Broadly called Gulf War Syndrome, its existence and causes are still debated by scientists, veterans groups and the government.
Sadly, too many times the government has been too slow to respond to the real illnesses that sickened current and former soldiers, much less to eliminate the conditions that caused them. With chromium 6 exposure, the Department of Veterans Affairs seems to be at least providing information to soldiers.
That may well be due to strong prodding from two Democratic U.S. senators from states whose National Guard members were exposed: Indiana’s Evan Bayh and West Virginia’s Jay Rockefeller, who have expressed outrage at the Department of Defense, saying its warnings to soldiers weren’t soon enough.
“Once again, the Department of Defense seems to be ignoring our service members’ objective evidence and complaints, denying that something in our environment at Qarmat Ali has caused health problems,” Rockefeller said at an August meeting of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee.
For his part, Bayh said the Defense Department’s inspector general will investigate, at his prodding, soldiers’ exposure to the chemical. He is also sponsoring legislation to create a government registry for soldiers exposed to environmental hazards during their service.
Americans and their officials know much more about toxic chemicals and environmental hazards today compared to the Vietnam era and even the first Gulf War, yet it took far too much time to protect soldiers from the orange dust that was obviously out of place at Qarmat Ali and to start addressing the health of those who were exposed to it. Officials must treat the Qarmat Ali exposure seriously. Indiana and Oregon soldiers should receive the same special monitoring that officials announced for West Virginia soldiers.
Bayh summed it up well in an Oct. 1 statement:
“The failure of the Army to properly warn our troops of these dangers or to properly clean the site unwittingly exposed hundreds of soldiers to carcinogenic toxins. It is essential that the Defense Department take a hard look at this incident to learn the lessons of Qarmat Ali and make sure that service members are never again needlessly exposed to hazardous chemicals while deployed.”