A new study by the Pentagon and the CIA has concluded that nearly 100,000 American troops may have been exposed to low levels of nerve gas as a result of the demolition of an Iraqi ammunition depot shortly after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and that they should be warned of possible health risks, government officials said Wednesday.
The study, which is expected to be made public today, sharply increases the government’s official estimate of the number of troops who may have been exposed to a cloud of chemical weapons released from the depot, which was blown up by American soldiers in March 1991.
The Defense Department had previously estimated that about 20,000 troops were within 50 kilometers of the blast and had encouraged them to seek special medical checkups. Pentagon officials had cautioned that the number could rise.
The new study does not resolve the mystery of the health problems reported by tens of thousands of veterans of the gulf war.
Scientists are divided on whether low levels of nerve gas and other chemical weapons could lead to the sorts of health problems, including digestive ailments and memory loss, commonly seen among the veterans. Some researchers believe the ailments are more likely the aftereffects of wartime stress.
The new study incorporates a series of computer models of the plume created by the demolition of the ammunition depot near the southern Iraqi village of Kamisiyah, about 30 miles from the border with Kuwait.
The depot was blown up by a battalion of American combat engineers who had not been warned that intelligence information gathered by the CIA suggested that the site had been used by the Iraqis to store chemical weapons.
Defense Department officials, speaking on condition that they not be identified, said the models showed that the cloud of nerve gas initially traveled in a southerly direction from the blast site, eventually spreading over areas of southern Iraq, Kuwait and northern Saudi Arabia where an estimated 98,900 American troops were deployed at the time.
While that estimate is far higher than any previously released by the government, the officials said the study contained some good news for the veterans, since the computer models showed that few veterans would have been exposed to anything other than a trace amount of the chemicals. “Nobody should panic over this,” said a Pentagon official.
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