A. Discussion

On August 2, 1990, Iraq’s forces invaded and occupied Kuwait. In the months after the invasion, it became increasingly clear to Iraq’s leadership that a military confrontation with Coalition forces in Saudi Arabia was inevitable. In August 1990, Iraq’s leaders decided that if its forces were ejected from Kuwait, they would destroy Kuwait’s oil-producing capacity before they left. To achieve this goal, Iraq’s engineers targeted Kuwait’s oil wells, tank farms, pumping stations, pipelines, refineries, and loading terminals. In short, Iraq planned to eliminate Kuwait’s entire oil infrastructure.[8,9]

As early as December 1990, the Iraqis practiced placing and detonating explosive charges on selected oil wells; the actual destruction of Kuwait’s oil wells, coinciding with Coalition forces’ air strikes, began on January 16, 1991.[10] In late February 1991, as the ground war began, Iraq’s forces intensified their efforts and systematically and comprehensively destroyed more than 750 oil wells throughout Kuwait and in the neutral zone between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.[11]

Smoke from the burning oil wells was first visible from satellite images as early as February 8, 1991.[12] Satellite images showed the number of oil fires peaked between February 22-24, 1991. In total, Iraq ignited or damaged more than 750 of Kuwait’s 943 oil wells distributed among eight fields.[13] The first fires were extinguished in early April 1991, with the last well capped on November 6, 1991.[14] During this period, various sources estimated the damaged well heads released approximately 4-6 million barrels of crude oil and 70-100 million cubic meters of natural gas per day.[15,16]

The burning wells created a huge, widely dispersed smoke plume that degraded the region’s air quality and released various potentially hazardous gases, including sulfur dioxide (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO), hydrogen sulfide (H2S), carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), and particulate matter (soot) that potentially contained partially burned hydrocarbons and metals. If sufficiently concentrated, both gases and particulate matter potentially can impair health in exposed populations.[17,18,19]

Beginning in March 1991, international teams initiated numerous sampling, monitoring, and modeling efforts; environmental and health risk assessments; and health screening and epidemiological studies to determine whether a causal relationship existed between exposures to oil fire smoke and adverse health affects, such as those some returning DoD troops and civilians reported. Subsequent sections of this report review these studies’ results.

This section addresses the major events associated with the destruction of the oil wells, from Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait to the extinguishing of the last oil well fire. In examining these events, this report will discuss several specific areas, including:

Table 1 presents a chronology of the events surrounding the destruction of Kuwait’s oil fields.

Table 1. Chronology of major oil well events in Gulf War[20,21]



August 2, 1990

Iraq invades Kuwait and develops scorched earth policy, the basis for its plan to destroy Kuwait’s oil infrastructure.

December 1990

Iraq experiments with effectiveness of explosives on oil wells.

January 16, 1991

Coinciding with the start of Allied bombing of Iraq’s positions in Kuwait and Iraq, Iraq starts to burn oil wells, starting at Wahfra field and moving north.

January 19-23, 1991

Iraq releases oil from Sea Island terminal into the Gulf.

January 26, 1991

Allied bombing ends oil flow from terminal; oil visible in Gulf on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) image.

January 27-28, 1991

US Government Interagency Assessment Team (USIAT), led by US Coast Guard, travels to Saudi Arabia to provide technical assistance for oil discharge response.

February 5-6, 1991

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) meets in Geneva to develop interagency action plan.

February 8, 1991

Oil visible in Gulf on Landsat Thematic Mapper (satellite) image.

February 24, 1991

Allied ground offensive begins; fires peak; extensive smoke plumes visible.

February 28, 1991

Kuwait City liberated; cessation of hostilities in region.

March 10, 1991

US Interagency Air Assessment Team (USIAAT) deploys to Gulf to provide technical assistance in assessing human health and environmental damage sustained due to oil fires

March 16, 1991

International fire-fighting teams begin to extinguish fires and cap oil wells.

March-May, 1991

USIAAT conducts air sampling, health surveys, and air reconnaissance surveys of oil fire smoke plumes.

April 3, 1991

US EPA releases the preliminary Interagency Interim Report on Kuwait Oil Fires.

April 5-11, 1991

Space Shuttle mission STS-37 photographs plumes and oil slick.

April 27-30, 1991

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) holds an international conference in Geneva to address atmospheric issues related to oil fires and develop an air monitoring plan.

May 1, 1991

DoD’s US Army Environmental Hygiene Agency (USAEHA) sends a sampling team to monitor health effects; samples sent to Aberdeen Proving Grounds, MD

May 5-Dec. 3, 1991

USAEHA conducts air monitoring in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

May 6, 1991

US EPA releases complete Interagency Interim Report on Kuwait Oil Fires.

May 16-June 15, 1991

Aircraft flights to study smoke plumes.

November 6, 1991

The last oil well is capped.

B. Intelligence Before Hostilities Began

Shortly after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, information about Iraq’s intentions to destroy Kuwait’s oil infrastructure came to light. From then until late February 1991, when the oil fires peaked, all-source reporting clearly indicated Iraq was preparing to systematically destroy Kuwait’s oil-producing capabilities. For example, intelligence sources knew Iraq’s soldiers had wired oil wells and rigs in the Minagish oilfield with plastic explosives in the first days of the occupation.[22]

During August 1990, Iraq’s engineers spent one full night wiring the Burgan oil field with explosives.[23,24] These fields proved a particularly significant target, ultimately comprising almost 50%, or roughly 300, of the wells set afire.

Baghdad has never explained the mass sabotage it conducted, but intelligence experts have presented several plausible reasons. Shortly after Iraq invaded Kuwait, Saddam Hussein developed a "scorched earth" policy about Kuwait’s economy. If Coalition forces attempted to oust Iraq’s forces from Kuwait, this policy ensured the Coalition would find nothing of value to recapture. By destroying hundreds of oil wells, Iraq could damage Kuwait’s most lucrative industry while also detrimentally affecting the area’s general environment.[25]

Evidence also suggests Iraq decided to destroy the oil fields to achieve a military advantage. Iraq’s generals believed the intense smoke plumes created by the burning oil wells would inhibit Coalition offensive air strikes[26] and could screen Iraq’s military movements.[27,28] As a tactical advantage, Iraq additionally hoped to obstruct Coalition ground forces’ movements. Iraq’s military leaders thought the heat, smoke, and debris from hundreds of burning oil wells would present a formidable obstacle to Coalition armies.[29] The dates of oil well destruction provide evidence supporting this assessment; for example, during the early stage of the Coalition air campaign, the number of oil wells afire was relatively small but the number increased dramatically in late February with the onset of the ground war.[30]

Economic factors also likely contributed to Iraq’s motives to destroy Kuwait’s oil industry. As of January 1990, Kuwait’s policy on the sale price of oil left it essentially isolated in the 13-member Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).[31] Due to its massive investment income, Kuwait favored relatively low oil prices.[32] The other 12 OPEC members, especially nations such as Iraq, which relied much more heavily on oil sales for income, favored moderate to high oil prices.[33] Thus, Iraq had a clear motive to retard Kuwait’s oil production capacity.

C. The Reported Use of Oil Well Fires to Distribute Chemical Agents

Beyond the inhibiting effect of the oil well smoke, fires, and debris, the press also has speculated Iraq’s army used ignited oil wells to disperse chemical agents. This theory originated from an initial DIA translation of an intercepted message to Iraq’s units rigging the oil wells for detonation.  This first translation of the message mentioned precaution engineers should take when Iraq’s 29th Infantry Battalion units were involved in "chemical preparations."[34] Specifically, one excerpt from the original Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) translation stated: "Protection masks should be worn at any explosion, as poisons or poisonous gases are found at the wells."[35] In addition, the translation refers several times to Iraq’s 29th Infantry Division Chemical Warfare Headquarters. These statements raised suspicions that Iraq may have used the ignited well heads to disperse chemical agents.

In response to these concerns, OSAGWI asked DIA to review the translation of all Iraq’s relevant documents. During and after the Gulf War, the Army experienced an acute shortage of trained Arabic linguists due to both the large number of captured enemy prisoners of war needing screening and interrogation and the massive quantities of captured documents requiring translation. As a result, many wartime document translations were somewhat rushed, inexact, and improperly interpreted. After more careful study and precise translation, the documents’ meaning appears more harmless. A revised translation of the sentence above states: "Use masks while exploding wells, because of poison gases in wells, use them also during training."[36] This revised translation supports the position that Iraq’s soldiers used protective masks solely to protect themselves from dangerous gases (e.g., hydrogen sulfide) typically contained in crude oil. Additionally, the presence of hydrogen sulfide could have motivated Iraq to use its Chemical Corps, a group trained to operate efficiently in such an environment.

In addition to the revised translation of Iraq’s intercepted message, several other reasons make it unlikely Iraq used the oil fires to distribute chemical munitions. First, it is well known that the most efficient method of destroying chemical munitions is through high-temperature incineration (~550o C). Indeed, incineration is a tested, proven method for disposing of the entire chemical weapon (i.e., agent, explosives, metal parts, and packing material). The US Army has used this incineration process for more than 20 years.[37] Thus, as oil fires were in the temperature range of 600-800o C, it is unlikely Iraq would attempt to distribute chemical agents in this way, as the heat would most likely have destroyed any such agent.

Second, as one chemical expert from the US Army’s Soldier and Biological Chemical Command (SBCCOM) explains, there is no evidence Iraq’s forces experienced any known symptoms associated with exposure to chemical warfare agents in the close vicinity of the oil well fires. The lack of this type of evidence makes the use of chemical warfare agents in this way unlikely.[38] Another SBCCOM expert believes the lack of reported symptoms is supporting evidence that these agents were not present.[39]

Another notable fact about the interaction of chemical agents and oil well fire products is absence of any research on the issue. Consultations with several SBCCOM experts, discussions with private sector experts, and a review of a SBCCOM database dating back to 1917 suggest that this issue has not been the topic of any research.[40,41] One reason for this is there is no apparent advantage in attempting to distribute chemical agents in such a manner.[42,43] Yet it is important to note that the US and European military communities are seldom confronted with military situations where the presence of oil wells and the hazards they represent are an issue. Therefore, research in the use of oil well fires as a means to distribute chemical agents would not be considered a high priority.

D. Physical Hazards Associated with Oil Wells

The physical hazards associated with the burning oil wells were considered serious; these included:

Section IV discusses specific pollutants associated with oil fire emissions in more detail. Section V presents the health hazards associated with exposure to crude oil and oil well fire smoke.

The oil fields in southern Kuwait were considered more dangerous than those in northern Kuwait because they contained higher concentrations of volatile organic compounds, and because they contained hydrogen sulfide (H2S), aromatics, and light hydrocarbons, making oil released at the well head flammable. This oil can be readily ignited by static electricity or incendiary devices. The crude oil itself is a health hazard because, in addition to other toxins, it contains benzene, which the US Public Health Service has determined is a cancer-causing compound.[44] Additional information on the health effects associated with exposures to crude oil and oil fire smoke can be found in Section V. Table 2 summarizes the dangers associated with Kuwait’s major southern oil fields.

Table 2. Dangers of South Kuwaiti Oil Fields[45]

Oil field




2900N 4800E

Massive fires, sour crudes, H2S gas, possible firestorms due to very high concentration of wells over a large area.


2907N 4758E

Massive fires, sour crudes, H2S gas, possible firestorms due to very high concentration of wells in a small area.


2805N 4759E

Fire trenches, low-pressure wellhead fires, oil swamps and bogs, H2S gas, potential fuel-air explosive (FAE) hazard.


2902N 4733E

Fire trenches, sour crude, H2S gas, oil swamps and bogs, potential FAE hazard.

Umm Gudair

2849N 4742E

Fire trenches, sour crude, H2S gas, oil swamps and bogs, potential FAE hazard.

One of the greatest dangers from non-burning oil wells was from dissociated hydrogen sulfide (H2S) and highly volatile light ends (e.g., methane, ethane, butane, benzene, and toluene). These gases are readily ignitable and are capable of forming concentrations, which may result in massive ground-level fuel-air explosions (FAE). Additionally, under cool, calm atmospheric conditions these toxic gases are found in pockets of very high concentrations (10,000 to 20,000 parts per million [ppm] of H2S)—concentrations that would quickly saturate standard-issue protective masks’ activated carbon filters.[46] A Foreign Service and Technology Center (FSTC) Scientific and Technical Analysis Bulletin warned of the possible hazards associated with extensive oil well fires.[47] The bulletin warned not only of fire and smoke hazards, but also of the likely threat of hydrogen sulfide, a gas that can cause dizziness, disorientation, vomiting, and death.[48]

Depending on the oil-bearing structure, hazards associated with H2S in the oil fields varied. The Marrat structure (Tab G) yields sour crudes with a very high associated H2S gas content. The deep, high-pressure wells in the Minagish and Umm Qudair fields are the most dangerous, with up to 2% of the oil H2S by weight, or 10,000 to 20,000 ppm of H2S (400 to 600 ppm is lethal). In addition, deep wells with similar H2S content tap the Marrat structure in the Burgan and Magwa fields.[49]

Shallow wells presented only a moderate H2S danger. Due to their lower wellhead pressure and lower flow rate (wellhead oil flow may range from 1,000 to 5,000 barrels per day), fires at shallow wells are easier to extinguish than those at high-pressure wells. Unlit shallow, low-pressure oil wells, however, present the greatest FAE hazard because these wells release flammable gases (light ends and H2S) at ground level. Under optimum meteorological conditions (cool temperatures with calm or nearly calm winds), these heavy gases hug the ground and lowlands. Due to their low flashpoint, they are easily ignited and because of the explosive force caused by their ignition they are capable of producing a lethal shock wave.[50] The potential dangers of H2S notwithstanding, medical examinations and health screening studies uncovered no evidence of any adverse health effects from exposure to H2S.

E. Preventing Exposure

1. Risk Prevention and Reduction Policy to Prevent Exposure to Forces

Responding to the impending threat of smoke and debris from ignited oil wells, DoD issued several early warnings to military and civilian personnel in Kuwait. DoD based its warnings partly on extensive consultations between government and private sector experts on protective methods for dealing with oil well fires.

In early January 1991, the US Army Intelligence Agency prepared a report warning of oil well fires’ hazards: "Due to the intense heat, no troops or combat vehicles should ever approach within 200 meters of the fire."[51] The report went on to explain that the military was not properly equipped to fight oil well fires and Coalition forces should not involve themselves in fire-fighting efforts.

An Army Central Command (ARCENT) Medical Command (MEDCOM) information paper, relying on MEDCOM’s preventive medicine consultant as the source, also discussed possible risks to US forces from exposure to oil well fires.[52] The paper discussed using surgical or dust masks and goggles as a means of protection from the effects of oil fire smoke. Other guidance advised rolling down shirtsleeves and rolling up vehicle windows when near oil well fires.[53]

On March 25, 1991, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Command Surgeon sent a message echoing the ARCENT MEDCOM guidance. The Command Surgeon stated although oil well fire smoke exposure was not known to increase risk of chronic disease, using a protective mask and hood could reduce the onset of short-term symptoms.[54]

2. Training and Equipment Provided to Prevent Exposure

As the ground offensive neared, DoD increased its efforts to advise deployed forces on exposure prevention. According to a General Accounting Office (GAO) report,[55] DoD efforts included providing specific guidance to the command and troops on the protective measures. In early March, DoD advised soldiers to avoid smoke plumes when possible and wash frequently to keep their skin free of soil and soot. DoD also alerted medical personnel and health units to the possibility smoke could irritate the lungs (e.g., coughing and wheezing) and cause illness among asthmatics. By mid-March, DoD provided more specific guidance to use disposable face masks (e.g., surgeons’ and nuisance dust masks) or scarves, roll down shirt sleeves, keep physical activity to a minimum, and stay upwind of burning wells.[56]

DoD used several means to relay precautions on oil wells to deployed forces, using fax and teletype messages extensively to communicate with field command echelons, which then spread this information through briefings and frequent announcements. An additional method of informing troops was through Armed Forces Radio, the primary news source for military service members in the Gulf.[57]

These communications represented a small portion of the total guidance disseminated during the Gulf conflict. Figure 4 is a timeline showing when DoD and other agencies issued additional specific guidance. Tab H lists DoD and other agency guidance on limiting exposure to oil fire smoke.

fig4s.gif (6853 bytes)

Figure 4. Guidance timeline

Overall, the GAO report noted DoD took reasonable steps to safeguard the health of US troops stationed in the Persian Gulf and exposed to potentially dangerous smoke.[58] However, as the GAO report notes, health advisories and guidance were not issued to the troops until February and March 1991 (guidance had been received at the command level as early as September 1990).

These notices appear somewhat less than timely, since information contained in the documents cited in the guidance timeline (Figure 4) and Appendix H suggest DoD was aware of the oil fire threat as early as September 1990. Furthermore, and contradicting the GAO report, some veterans have stated in interviews that were conducted during the course of this investigation that they received no protective equipment or training dealing specifically with oil well fire health threats. The interviews focused on a series of questions relating personal experiences to oil fire smoke exposures. Tab I presents these questions, which focus on four major issues:

Of those veterans participating in the self-reporting Incident Reporting Hotline program, we selected 270 who represent the most exposed of those who called the Hotline. We based their selection for inclusion on some or all of the following criteria: [59]

We have included all 270 participants’ responses in a single case file,[60] and performed a simple analysis looking at two factors on the survey results. Table 3 shows the results.

Table 3. Veterans’ responses to oil well fire questionnaire[61]


Percentage of respondents agreeing with factor

Number of respondents agreeing

Troops received special instructions and warnings to deal with oil fires’ hazards.



Troops used equipment (e.g., scarf, painter’s mask) other than Mission Oriented Protective Posture (MOPP) gear as protection from oil fires.



Though the 270 responses do not represent a random sample, the homogeneity of the responses lead to several general conclusions:

"It was a Monday, the sky was so dark it was like night. People’s eyes were running with black tears, your saliva was black, you had to have a bandanna over your nose to breathe." [62]                              Gulf War Veteran

F. The Nature and Extent of Destruction

Iraq’s army was able to ignite more than 600 oil wells and destroy numerous production facilities in a short period of time, an efficiency that shows the lengths to which Iraq’s forces went to ensure the completeness and success of the sabotage.[63] Baghdad sent detailed instructions on how to place explosives to oil field engineers.[64] Under these engineers’ supervision, Iraq’s forces packed 30 to 40 pounds of plastic explosives on each well head and then placed the detonation cords to allow simultaneous detonation of multiple wells.

Additionally, to maximize any associated gas dangers, Iraq ruptured wellhead "Christmas Tree" valves[65] (the wellhead piping and gates controlling crude oil flow from the well to the transfer pipeline that carried the oil to collection points) without igniting the crude oil. In December 1990, before the Coalition air strikes, Iraq’s forces practiced their well destruction procedures and experimented with the effectiveness of explosives on six mockups in Iraq.[66,67]

Iraq’s sabotage crippled Kuwait’s oil production and processing facilities, damaging or destroying approximately 85% of Kuwait’s wells in virtually every major field (Tab G).[68] By striking the wells, Iraq could not only immediately terminate oil production, but also begin to drain Kuwait’s economic base. In addition to the wells, Iraq’s forces significantly damaged almost every other aspect of Kuwait’s oil production industry, including gathering centers, transfer facilities, excess storage facilities, and operations centers.[69]

A review of the literature indicates that the total number of Kuwait’s oil wells set afire ranged from 605 to 732.

For example, USAEHA’s interim report[70] cites 605 wells on fire based on an analysis of the NOAA Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) and Landsat Thematic Mapper satellite tapes, which were digitally processed using the thermal infrared band 3, designed to record heat sources such as volcanoes and fires.[71] Husain puts the number at 609.[72] Al-Besharah and Tawfiq agree on 613 wells.[73,74] Al-Hassan [75] estimated 730-plus and Thorhaug 732.[76] Since the USAEHA health risk assessment (Section VI) is based on emission factors for 605 wells afire, we use this figure as the standard.

Beginning on January 19, and continuing to January 23, 1991, Iraq began pumping Kuwaiti oil into the Persian Gulf, creating an oil slick covering thousands of square miles. The oil spilled into the Gulf until January 26, 1991, when Coalition strike aircraft interrupted the flow by destroying the Kuwait oil system’s main mixing manifold.[77]

Iraq did not cause all the destruction to the oil fields. Coalition force attacks on Iraq’s positions destroyed or damaged some of the oil fields. In January 1991 heavy Coalition bombing destroyed 34 wells and 13 of 18 Kuwait’s gathering stations.[78] A US Air Force Defense Intelligence Summary from February 20, 1991, stated Coalition air strikes "significantly damaged Kuwait’s oil production system."[79] This collateral damage resulted from attacks on Iraq’s military positions in the oil fields and throughout Kuwait.

Table 4[80] shows the overall extent of damage to the oil wells. The first column identifies the two regional fields and the individual fields comprising each. The second column shows the total number of oil wells each field contained, with the total number of wells ignited in each in the third column.

The fourth column indicates the number of wells damaged in each field, including wells that received structural damage but not those ignited or damaged and gushing oil. The fifth column shows the number of damaged wells that released crude oil uncontrollably. The last column shows the number of wells in each field undamaged in any way. Figure 5 [81] summarizes the information contained in Table 4 by percentage.

Table 4. Kuwait oil well damage by field


Total No. Wellheads

Wells Burning

Wells Damaged

Wells Gushing

Wells Intact

North Fields



















South Fields











































Umm Gudair*












Note: * denotes a major oil field; + denotes a minor field; # field is part of the Greater Burgan oil field.

At the peak of the oil well fires, 4 to 6 million barrels of oil and 70 to 100 million cubic meters of natural gas burned daily;[82,83] Kuwait’s prewar crude oil production was 2 million barrels per day.[84] By November 1991, when all the oil well fires had been extinguished, more than 1 billion barrels of crude oil had been lost, a volume equal to 1.5-2% of Kuwait’s total oil reserve.[85]

fig5s.gif (4073 bytes)

Figure 5.  Damage summary of Kuwait oil fields

While the oil wells suffered the most conspicuous and comprehensive damage, other Kuwait oil industry components also were hard-hit. Though this destruction was more random and incomplete than the oil wells’, the damage was still extensive.[86] Gathering centers contain several important oil production components, including storage tanks and oil transfer pipelines. Gathering centers in North Kuwait’s Sabriya and Raudhatain fields, in particular, suffered significant damage.

An additional concern was the large crude oil pools or lakes formed as a result of the damage sustained to the well heads and the subsequent release of free-flowing oil to the surrounding terrain. Damaged, unignited oil wells freely spewed thousands of barrels of oil a day onto the Kuwaiti landscape, creating more than 100 oil lakes covering an area of 19 square kilometers. The lakes varied in depth from very shallow to more than 1.5 meters deep.[87] These massive pools of standing crude oil released large amounts of organic vapors into the atmosphere.[88] Thirty-nine oil lakes covering an area of about three of the 19 square kilometers, contained an estimated 25 to 40 million barrels of oil.[89]

Iraq also released oil into low-lying areas for defensive purposes. Along Kuwait’s southern border, Iraq constructed several "fire trenches" roughly 1 kilometer long, 3 meters wide, and 3 meters deep to impede Coalition forces’ advance.[90] Though they had little impact on the war’s outcome, these and other oil lakes ultimately hindered post-war fire-fighting efforts. Flaming oil lakes were difficult to extinguish and made movement around burning wells even more dangerous.[91]

The massive destruction to Kuwait’s oil industry released a large amount of pollutants into the atmosphere, discussed further in Section IV.

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