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Pentagon notifying 100,000 soldiers of possible nerve gas exposure

Chemicals graphic July 24, 1997
Web posted at: 3:12 p.m. EDT (1912 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Pentagon confirmed Thursday that nearly 100,000 U.S. troops could have been exposed to trace amounts of poisonous nerve gas when chemical weapons were destroyed at the end of the Gulf War.

But during a news conference Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said there had been no clinical evidence that troops were actually exposed. Even if they had been, he said, long-term medical effects were unlikely. "We are in the process of notifying those soldiers," Bacon said.

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Though the estimate of troops exposed is five times the Pentagon's earlier guess, it is sticking to the view that the chemical release on March 10, 1991, appears unrelated to the mysterious illnesses reported by Gulf War veterans.

Veterans groups have been highly critical of the Defense Department for not investigating chemical exposures earlier and more aggressively.

Weather, warheads analyzed

The conference, which also brought in representatives from the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency, went into exhaustive detail on the study, explaining how meteorological data and warhead reconstructions were used to estimate the number of soldiers exposed.

Prevailing wind conditions on the date of the weapons destruction at Khamisiyah ammunition depot helped investigators determine how far nerve gas might have been spread.

By rebuilding warheads, investigators learned how much of the nerve gas could have been spread around, and in what form. The warheads, they found, held less nerve gas than originally believed -- each could have held no more than 6.3 kg of the gas, not 8 kg as originally thought. This would have made for a total of no more than 1,882 gallons of agent in the pit.

Not the solution for Gulf War illness

The Pentagon, working with the CIA, has found no clear link between the chemical exposures and the unexplained illnesses, but many veterans still believe chemical or possibly biological weapons are to blame.

Many of the veterans have complained of medical problems such as fatigue, sleep disorders, headaches and pain in the joints and muscles.

For more than five years after the war, the Pentagon strongly denied there was any evidence that American troops had been exposed to chemical weapons.

But in June 1996, the Pentagon acknowledged that the demolition of the Khamisiyah depot in southern Iraq in March 1991 had resulted in the release of toxic chemical agents in the vicinity of American troops. Pentagon officials said, however, they didn't know the degree of exposure or the number of troops affected.

Last month, the Pentagon said it had established the exact whereabouts of U.S. forces on the day of the demolition, and last week it estimated that about 500 chemical-filled 122 mm Iraqi rockets had been blown up at Khamisiyah.

Sources say it is unlikely that the incident will account for the Gulf War illnesses, because many sick veterans were not in the area, and many who were are not sick.

Also, they say, the exposure levels were too low for the sarin to be a factor. They say the exposure level for most troops is 0.01296 milligram minutes per cubic meter, while the standard for pesticide workers is 1.0 milligram minutes per cubic meter.


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