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Kuwait Fires Stoke Families’ Fears for Soldiers’ Health

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The war didn’t kill Sherri Moyer’s husband--a Marine reserve captain--but she is afraid that smog in the Persian Gulf will.

Moyer and an increasing number of other families worry about the health effects on 380,000 U.S. servicemen who are inhaling the billowing dense, black smoke spewing from 600 burning Kuwaiti oil wells, set afire by retreating Iraqi troops.

“I’m afraid he’s going to come home a hero and die five or 10 years from now of a lung disease,” said Moyer, a Carlsbad resident. She and other military families are hoping to press the Pentagon to relocate servicemen beyond reach of the smoke or to give them protective masks.

After more than a month of the eye-stinging smoke that often darkens day into night, officials still are not certain how the air in the Persian Gulf will affect those inhaling it. On Wednesday, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William K. Reilly said preliminary test results showed that the air contained no abnormal amounts of toxic fumes. But Pentagon officials stopped short of saying that the air is safe to breathe, waiting for another EPA test that will be released later this month.

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“The bottom line is that initial assessment detected no abnormal amounts of toxic gases, but further studies need to be done,” said Lt. Col. Stuart Wagner, a Pentagon spokesman.

But tests by other agencies suggest a more serious problem. Preliminary tests of air in Kuwait City show increases of up to 1,000% in sulfur dioxide levels from a year ago, according to the Kuwait Ministry of Public Health.

The burning oil, which is consuming an estimated 6 million barrels of oil daily, also can produce carbon monoxide and other toxic gases, according to the California Firefighter’s Assn., which has joined several concerned family members in asking the Pentagon to move or protect U.S. servicemen.

Exposure to the gases can cause respiratory difficulties, affect the nervous system and result in permanent damage to the central nervous system, heart and lungs, the group said.

Other experts, however, say the burning oil will have no adverse effects on those stationed for several months in the area. Robert Phalen, director of the Air Pollution Health Effects Laboratory at UC Irvine, said he sees no cause for alarm.

“I don’t think families of people over there have to worry that the oil smoke is going to do permanent damage,” he said. “They don’t have to worry about something for years down the line that will haunt these people--it’s not the type of smoke that will collect in the body and produce cancer or health effects later on.”

The EPA’s interim report, released Wednesday, supports the view that the air quality “does not appear to be life-threatening under current exposure conditions.”

But the report warns that “emissions from the oil fires may have the potential of causing health effects of both an acute and chronic nature, although there is considerable uncertainty as to the extent of the threat.” The scientists found sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide and other chemicals but not in “any significant quantity.”

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The long-term effects of the tainted air are unknown.

The report concludes that additional testing is needed.

And the wait for more information adds to the anguish of families whose loved ones are still stationed in the Gulf. For them, their relief at the war being over is tempered by their concern about the smog.

“We are more than a little concerned--he’s my only son,” said Janice Kern, a Glendale resident whose son, Marine Reserve Lance Cpl. Cary Kern, shipped out to the Gulf in December.

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The shooting may be over but the danger is not, Janice Kern said. “We feel the pollution is a lesser concern, but then you ask yourself--is it truly? Twenty years from now, is it going to be a larger concern than the war itself?”

Cpl. Dan Cardenas, a 22-year-old Irvine Marine reservist, called his mother and told her he keeps coughing. “Mom, my lungs are killing me--the first thing I am going to do when I get back is see a respiratory therapist,” Cardenas told his mother, Sam.

In a recent letter, Marine reservist Thomas Halley, 20, wrote to his mother, Susan Arends of San Diego: “My main problem now is I keep getting these damn headaches.”

Arends’ husband died of lung cancer. Now she is afraid that her son, who shipped out to the Gulf on Dec. 28, will fall victim to a similar disease.

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“You see all this pollution--hell, no, none of our guys are safe,” Arends said. “I’d like our guys pulled out of the area.”


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