Military and civilian personnel in the Gulf were exposed to an array of contaminants that may have been different from those they would have experienced had they remained in the US or at their home bases overseas. These contaminants fall into three categories as a function of their source:

Environmental sampling conducted by various international organizations from March to December 1991 characterized emissions from oil fires, war-related emissions, and background sources. On-going monitoring programs conducted by the Kuwait Environmental Protection Department defined air quality conditions before August 1990. Section IV.D. further discusses these programs.

A. Oil Well Fire Combustion Products

The burning crude oil smoke was a mixture of heated, potentially noxious gases and coated carbon particles representing combustion products.[92] The burning crude oil produced a wide range of combustion products: carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide (CO), sulfur dioxide (SO2), oxides of nitrogen (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), ozone (O3), various polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and acid aerosols. In addition, hydrogen sulfide (H2S), a major component of natural gas, is present at various concentrations at some of the affected oil fields, depending on the rate and efficiency of combustion (i.e., H2S is combustible).[93,94]

The most visible evidence of the fires were the particulate matter and carbonized particles (soot) that formed the huge smoke plumes. The hazards these particles posed depended on both their size and composition.

Particles smaller than 10 micrometers in aerodynamic diameter (PM10) posed the greatest hazard. Particles in this size range have the potential to settle deep in the lungs.[95] From the burning crude oil, particulate emissions averaged 2% by weight, of which about 20% was fine-particle soot (PM10) emitted at a rate of about 3,400 tons per day.[96] Salt (originating from oil field brines that were ejected from the well along with the oil), soot, and sulfate accounted for about two-thirds of the mass of the smoke.[97]

In addition to hydrocarbon combustion products, the smoke contained other components, including various heavy metals. Present in crude oil as impurities, such metals may include nickel; small amounts of vanadium and iron; and trace quantities of aluminum, beryllium, cadmium, calcium, chromium, arsenic, silicon, zinc, and lead, some of which are on US EPA’s hazardous substance list.[98,99] Section V discusses the health effects associated with exposure to metals.

Research teams noted the smoke plume contained generally low levels of contaminants, which was attributed to fairly complete combustion at the well heads. Because air quality measurements made from aircraft in May and June 1991 detected low quantities of carbon monoxide (an indicator of incomplete combustion), researchers concluded that combustion was relatively efficient, with about 96% of the organic material combusted to form CO2.[100,101]

B. Smoke Plume Characteristics

One of the most dramatic consequences of the oil field fires was the ensuing smoke plumes, which rose into the atmosphere. The pillar-like plumes would broaden and join with other smoke columns at higher altitudes. NOAA and Landsat satellites monitored the Kuwait oil fires to track the associated smoke plumes’ migrations.[102]

"It was like a cloudy day all day long, in fact, we didn’t realize it was smoke at first. The smoke was about 500 feet above us, so we couldn’t see the sky. However, we could see horizontally for long distances with no problem. We knew it was smoke when the mucous from our nostrils started to look black..."[103]              Gulf War Veteran

The plume height and its lateral spread and migration were a function of several factors, including: 1) the extent of damage to the well heads, 2) the pressure inside the well, 3) the exit velocity of the jetting oil, 4) wind speed and direction, and 5) the rising hot air. High-pressure wells produced high-pressure oil jets (Figure 6). In more than 40% of the cases, smoke arose vertically. In completely blown-out well heads, flickering fireballs formed at the top of the head (Figure 7) and the smoke plume drifted closer to the surface.[104]

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Figure 6. High-pressure well head (photo by Jack Heller, USACHPPM, May 1991)

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Figure 7. Blown well head showing flickering fireball (photo by Jack Heller, USACHPPM, May 1991)

Meteorological conditions tended to transport the smoke plume toward the southeast, with periodic shifts toward the northeast.[105] For example, Figure 8[106] is a computer-generated mosaic from two Landsat images acquired May 30, 1991. It reveals a smoke plume 30-60 kilometers (km) wide extending hundreds of kilometers southeast of Kuwait City along the Persian Gulf. In this case, smoke coming from the northern oilfields (i.e., Raudhatain and Sabriya Fields) blew across the Gulf of Kuwait and over Kuwait City, joined with smoke from the southern oilfields (i.e., Greater Burgan and Minagish), created a composite or "superplume," and then continued southeastward.[107] Figures 9 and 10 show the formation of the composite plume. Figure 8 also shows the fixed air monitoring stations USAEHA established, coinciding with major troop staging areas, and monitoring dates. Section IV.D. discusses the USAEHA air monitoring program in detail.

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Figure 8. Plume boundary, May 30, 1991

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Figure 9. Formation of composite plume (photo by Jack Heller, USACHPPM, May 1991)

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Figure 10. Formation of composite plume (photo by Jack Heller, USACHPPM, May 1991)

Figures 11-14 show smoke plume frequency distribution maps[108] depicting the number of days the plume occurred at a location over a specified period of time. For example, in Figure 11 the dark gray shading (light green shading in the color version of this figure) covers central and eastern Kuwait, indicating for the nine days between February 20-to 28, the plume was over these geographic areas between five and nine days (this is the applicable portion of the 5-12 days indicated in the legend of the figure) and over the western part of Kuwait (light gray shading or darker green shading in the color version), for less than five days. In Figure 12, the black portion (dark red shading in the color version of this figure) of the plume boundary is over the northeast corner, south, and southeast corner of Kuwait and extends southeastward over the Persian Gulf. This indicates in March 1991 the smoke plume was over these geographic areas for more than 24 days, including over central Kuwait for 5-12 days and western Kuwait 1-4 days. Section VI discusses the concentrations of the various contaminants of concern in these plumes and the troop units exposed.

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Figure 11. Plume frequency distribution, February 1991

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Figure 12. Plume frequency distribution, March 1991

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Figure 13. Plume frequency distribution, April 1991

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Figure 14. Plume frequency distribution, May 1991

Although the composite smoke plume appeared black when viewed from satellite photographs, smoke color and density varied in individual fires. About 25% of the plumes from individual fires emitted white or light gray smoke, while others emitted black or a mixture of black and white smoke.[109] Fires producing white smoke were highly enriched with sodium and calcium chlorides (Figure 15).[110] About 10% of the fires were from the oil lakes and produced the densest black smoke (Figure 16). Figure 17 shows an unkindled oil lake surrounding a "Christmas Tree" valve. A few fires emitted no visible plume at all. The differences in plume composition resulted from varying oil-gas-water mixtures the wells ejected, the different oil fields’ compositional differences, and the damaged well heads’ conditions.[111]

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Figure 15. Oil well fire emitting white smoke (photo by Jack Heller, USACHPPM, May 1991)

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Figure 16. Oil lake fire ( 1996 Earthbase/Liaison Agency reprinted with permission)

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Figure 17. Oil lake around a ruptured "Christmas Tree" valve ( 1996 Earthbase/Liaison Agency reprinted with permission)

The health hazards the smoke posed depended largely on the pollutants’ concentrations in the air. Several troops reported significant short-term exposures to oil fire smoke, soot, and unburned oil, usually after having been totally enveloped in oil well fire fall-out. At times troops reported being soaked with unburned oil. Section V discusses the health effects reported for short-term acute exposures.

Meteorological conditions dissipated the heavier surface smoke concentrations. For example, the region typically experiences very strong winds from the northwest, which, in addition to producing seasonal sandstorms, rapidly dissipated the smoke.[112] In general, the plumes rose to 10,000 to 12,000 feet, mixed with the air, and then dispersed over several thousand miles downwind over a period of several weeks.[113] Cofer (1992), noted these altitudes were high enough to rapidly remove a large portion of the smoke from the troops’ breathing zone and low enough to prevent global distributions of smoke contaminants, thus limiting the environmental impact to a regional scale.[114]

"Smoke covered the sun, but it was not bad because it was high above us. We had no problems breathing or working."[115]          Gulf War Veteran

Due to stable conditions and above-ground-level temperature inversions the drifting composite plume sometimes took the form of stratified layers separated by clean air.[116] As the plume traveled, the contaminants dispersed with the plume and became more diluted. The highest contaminant concentrations were in areas nearest the oil fields and short distances downwind.[117]

While smoke plumes occasionally touched the ground, enveloping nearby personnel, few were in those areas for extended periods of time.[118,119] Exact exposure levels for individual service members are not certain because personal air monitoring and sampling was not conducted during these events.[120] Furthermore, since considerable dilution took place with distance, the plume was far less visible and less concentrated in Saudi Arabia than in Kuwait.[121] Air quality monitoring data collected from March to December 1991 support these findings (see Section IV.D).

C. Other Factors Contributing to Atmospheric Contamination

Numerous pollution sources before, during, and after the war contributed to atmospheric contamination. The most significant impacts on air quality in the Gulf region (other than from the fires and natural sources) continually have been from both Kuwait’s and Saudi Arabia’s oil industries, which emit toxic organic chemicals into the atmosphere, among them hydrocarbons, PAHs, alkanes, and VOCs from refining operations and bulk storage tanks.

Iraq’s invasion severely disrupted Kuwait’s oil industry, leading to the temporary cessation of many drilling and crude oil processing activities and a corresponding reduction in the quantity of pollutants emitted. Shortly after the war, however, refining output increased rapidly with a corresponding rise in air pollution. In Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states, the war did not affect oil production, and these countries’ oil industries continued to be major polluters throughout Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.[122]

After Kuwait City’s liberation, numerous trash fires, producing localized smoke plumes, were observed. These fires, many near sampling sites (e.g., Camp Thunderock, Armed Forces Hospital, and the US Embassy), contained many of the same pollutants as the oil well fires.[123]

Civilian vehicular traffic was another source of background man-made contamination.[124] The primary contaminants included lead, hydrocarbons, ozone, carbon monoxide, and oxides of nitrogen. This source resulted in lower contaminant levels during and before the war; but increased rapidly as civilian vehicular traffic increased after the war.[125]

In addition to oil well fires, exposures to petroleum vapors, solvents, and combustion products associated with military operations were common during the Gulf War. For example, petroleum products (kerosene, diesel fuels, and leaded gasoline) were used for heating and as sand and dust suppressants. Mobile armament and transport vehicles used diesel and gasoline fuels. Fueling operations resulted in emissions of petroleum vapors. Engine exhaust and burning and evaporating petroleum also would have increased exposures to benzene-containing compounds, and a great number of semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOC).[126]

Servicemembers reported the occasional use of gasoline, diesel, and other unauthorized fuels in heaters designed to burn kerosene. According to published reports on kerosene heater studies, elevated concentrations of oxides of sulfur (SOx) and NOx, CO, lead, respirable particulates, and other pollutants would be expected. Elevated concentrations lasting throughout the winter repeatedly could have occurred in tents where unauthorized fuels were used.[127]

Finally, tactical maneuvering by military forces, the erection of defensive structures, and preparation of military facilities before the war disturbed the desert surface in these operations areas, thereby enhancing wind erosion. Severe soil damage occurred in Kuwait, northeastern Saudi Arabia, and southern Iraq. A comparison of the distribution of air particulate levels during sampling events conducted in 1980-83, 1991, and 1992 suggests soil erosion contributed to increased air particulates in the ambient air of Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, during both 1990 and 1991.[128]

D. US and International Response

During the nine months, from January to November in which the oil wells burned, US and international agencies undertook numerous efforts to assess regional air quality and determine short- and long-term effects to human health and the environment. During this period, several US and international agencies performed extensive air monitoring.

The US Interagency Air Quality Assessment Team (USIAAT); the Army Environmental Hygiene Agency (USAEHA), and various countries under a World Meteorological Organization program collected air quality sampling and monitoring data. Collectively, these studies’ data indicated that except for particulate matter, pollutant levels were surprisingly low. All groups found that levels of nitrogen oxide (NO2), carbon dioxide (CO), sulfur dioxide (SO2), hydrogen sulfide (H2S), other pollutant gases, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) were lower than anticipated and did not exceed those found in the air over a typical US industrial city.[129] Based on these findings, and because of its ability to penetrate the deepest portions of the lungs and its potential to absorb other contaminants (e.g., PAHs), the major health hazard associated with oil well fires was the particulate matter being emitted.[130]

Several monitoring sites observed high levels of airborne particulates, sand, and soot. Analysis of samples, however, indicated the particles were mostly sand-based materials typical for this region of the world. In the particulate matter samples, PAH and toxic metal concentrations were low.[131]

1. US Interagency Air Quality Assessment Team (USIAAT)

In response to a request for technical assistance by the Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian governments, the US Department of State designated the US EPA to assemble a team to assess the possible health effects from the oil well fire smoke. In March 1991, a team consisting of scientists and engineers from the US EPA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Department of Health and Human Services), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) arrived in Kuwait. In country, members of the US Coast Guard and Departments of Defense and Energy supplemented this team.[132,133,134] The team’s primary objective was to obtain preliminary, short-term data on oil fire emissions at several locations to:

It is significant to note USIAAT began monitoring on March 11, 1991, when the number of oil well fires was at its peak (i.e., no fires had been extinguished) and the data collected reflected existing atmospheric conditions and air quality. USIAAT used portable equipment to obtain real-time measurements (i.e., measured at the time samples were taken) of H2S, SO2, VOCs, and Total Suspended Particulates (TSP) at 13 locations in Kuwait and Saudi, including the Meteorology and Environmental Protection Administration (MEPA) in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia; the US Embassies in Kuwait City and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Camp Freedom in Kuwait; Port Shuaybah in Kuwait; and several locations near the oil fields.

Beginning in May 1991, the Army Environmental Hygiene Agency (USAEHA) conducted the region’s most extensive monitoring program, but with its late starting date, it missed the first six weeks of the fires. To account for the period in which USAEHA did not conduct monitoring, USAEHA "back-filled" the data using an atmospheric model (see Section IV.D.2). The USIAAT data for this period was useful in validating USAEHA’s "modeled data."

The USIAAT team also interviewed several local health officials to determine the impact on public health, review the region’s health infrastructure, determine the region’s capability to deal with the health threat, provide technical assistance, and consider appropriate follow-up actions.[136]

USIAAT conducted a second round of monitoring between March 24 and March 27, 1991, at about 15 locations in Kuwait.[137]

USIAAT’s sampling and monitoring locations were selected to obtain real-time data in areas where US troops were located. USIAAT analyzed samples from 10 locations for VOCs, PAHs, heavy metals, SO2, and inorganic acids and a limited number of samples for H2S, formaldehyde, CO, and total suspended particulates.[138]

In its April 1991 interim report, the USIAAT team found:

The report noted further investigations would be needed to definitively evaluate the nature and magnitude of the fires’ health and environmental effects.[139] Table 5 summarizes the Team’s real-time monitoring results at the Kuwait and Saudi Arabia sites.[140] Section V, Health Effects Assessment, discusses the significance of these monitoring results and compares observed contaminant levels and those considered acceptable under US EPA’s air quality and occupational standards.

Table 5. Summary of interagency team real-time air-monitoring results for the indicated periods


March 13-20, 1991

March 24-27, 1991


























Note: Units are in parts per million (ppm), except for TSP, which are in micrograms per cubic meter (m g/m3).

USIAAT used the pre-war data as a baseline from which to compare the air quality data the various international organizations obtained after the oil fires began. Results from the air samples collected for SO2 and VOCs in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were comparable to the real-time measurements and sampling and analysis the fixed and mobile monitoring stations performed before the war[141] and support the position the oil fire smoke did not significantly affect the region’s general air quality.

The interagency team sampling results were compared with US EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS)[142] and Saudi Arabia’s Meteorology and Environmental Protection Administration (MEPA) standards. Governing SO2, NO2, CO, H2S, and O3, MEPA standards are the same as NAAQS except for O3 and H2S. [The MEPA one-hour standard for O3 is 295 m g/m3 while the US EPA standard is 235 m g/m3; US EPA has not established an H2S ambient standard.] National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)[143] or the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH)[144] workplace exposure limits which are 10- and 8-hour time-weighted-averages, respectively, were used for comparison for those pollutants where ambient air standards did not exist.[145]

NAAQS are based on continuous 24-hours-a-day exposure, and include a margin of safety to protect sensitive sub-groups of the general population, such as the infirmed, the elderly, and children. On the other hand, occupational limits, such as ACGIH’s threshold limit values (TLVs ), NIOSH’s recommended exposure limits (RELs), or OSHA’s permissible exposure limits (PELs) are based on 8 hours per day, 40 hours per week over a normal working lifetime.

These organizations set occupational limits so a healthy worker will suffer no adverse health effects over a normal working lifetime. Hence, occupational limits are higher than NAAQS, and are provided for comparison. NAAQS are considered very conservative for Gulf War exposure because US forces generally were a younger, healthier population than the target population the standards were developed to protect and the exposures occurred for a maximum of several months versus the continuous lifetime exposure for ambient standards.

Comparing SO2 levels shows Gulf levels exceeded NAAQS’s in four cases in non-populated areas, but levels fell below the NIOSH and ACGIH workplace exposure limit of 2 ppm.[146]

Levels for inorganic acids, VOCs, and PAHs fell within the NIOSH and ACGIH workplace exposure limits for those substances for which standards had been established, and none of the SO2 samples collected in populated areas exceeded the US EPA air quality limits of 365 m g/m3 or 0.14 ppm for 24-hour exposure.[147,148] H2S levels exceeded the Saudi Arabian 24-hour NAAQS in two cases but these levels fell within NIOSH and ACGIH workplace exposure limits.[149]

US EPA’s PM10 standard for particulate matter allows a maximum of 150 m g/m3 over 24 hours and an annual mean of 50 m g/m3 based on the 3-year average of the 99th percentile of the 24-hour PM10 concentrations.[150] The average PM10 concentration in Kuwait is nearly 600 m g/m3, the highest in the world.[151] By comparison, US EPA has estimated an annual average PM10 concentration range of 4 to 8 m g/m3 for the western United States and 5 to 11 m g/m3 for the eastern United States.[152] This suggests that the high particulate matter background levels in Kuwait, particularly the PM10 size fraction, must also be considered when determining the oil fires’ contribution to the total airborne particulate level.

2. US Army Environmental Hygiene Agency

In 1991, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Environment) asked USAEHA, now the US Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine (USACHPPM), to assess the Kuwait oil fires’ health impact with two objectives: (1) identify whether dangerous amounts of pollutants emitted from oil fires were present at US troop locations; and (2) in accordance with Public Law 102-190, determine the potential health risks to US military personnel and civilians from exposures to these pollutants.[153,154]

USAEHA conducted its activities in two phases. In the first, it monitored and sampled air and soil to determine the nature and extent of regional contamination and performed a site-specific human health risk assessment. USAEHA conducted sampling between May 5 and December 4, 1991, at six locations in Kuwait and four in Saudi Arabia.

Using the sampling and monitoring data collected in the first phase, in addition to modeled data, in the second phase USAEHA developed a human health risk assessment (HRA)[155] for each individual US troop unit, as required by Public Law 102-190. [Section VI discusses the HRA process in more detail.]

In developing the unit-specific HRA, USAEHA combined the specific pollutant concentration data collected in the first phase with pollutant toxicity data, troop unit movement data, air dispersion modeling data, and satellite imagery into a Geographic Information System (GIS),[156] a computer-based system designed to capture, maintain, and analyze information about troop exposures to the oil fire smoke and calculate any resulting health risks. The pollutant-specific data consisted of crude oil composition data, oil fire emission data, oil fire extinguishment data, and contaminant destruction efficiency data from fixed-site sampling locations in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

USAEHA established sampling locations based on their proximity to where most US forces were located for extended time periods during and after the war, including areas where the smoke was considered heaviest. USAEHA sampled at seven major troop- and three civilian-staging areas (i.e., the US Embassy in Kuwait, Ahmadi Hospital, and Camp Abdaly Red Cross/Red Crescent Refugee Center).[157] Figure 18 is a map showing the USAEHA sampling points. In measuring pollutants USAEHA followed US EPA standard methods, described in USAEHA’s Final Report.

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Figure 18. 1991 US Army environmental sampling locations

USAEHA analyzed air samples for total and PM10 suspended particulates, a series of metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, criteria pollutants, volatile organic compounds, and acid aerosols (sulfuric, nitric, and hydrochloric acids). Table 6 lists all monitored contaminants of concern,[158] chosen by USAEHA because of their likelihood of reasonably estimating the oil well fires’ impact. USAEHA collected a total of 4,000 environmental samples in-theater between May and December 1991 (i.e., for one month after the oil fires were extinguished) to obtain data on background conditions. USAEHA used its sampling results as input to the health risk assessment portions of its study (see Section VI). In addition to monitoring air, USAEHA also sampled soil at the air sites to ensure it evaluated all potential exposure pathways (e.g., inhalation, ingestion, and dermal absorption).[159]

Table 6. Contaminants of concern[160]

Volatile Organic Compounds

  • Benzene

  • Heptane

  • Propyl Benzene

  • m-Xylene

  • o-Xylene

  • Toluene

  • p-Xylene

  • Ethyl Benzene

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH)

(Aromatic hydrocarbons containing more than one fused benzene ring)

  • Acenaphthene
  • Carbazole
  • Pyrene
  • Benzo (f) fluoranthene
  • Benzo (a) anthracene
  • 2-Methylnaphthalene
  • Cumene
  • Naphthalene
  • Benzo (e) pyrene
  • Acenaphthylene
  • Dibenzofurans
  • Methylnaphthalene
  • Benzo (g,h,i) perylene
  • Benzo (a) pyrene
  • Biphenyls
  • Dibenzo(a,h)
  • Phenanthrene
  • Chrysene
  • Anthracene
  • 1-Methylnaphthalene
  • Ideno (1,2,3 -cd) pyrene
  • Fluoranthene
  • Benzo (b) fluoranthene
  • 2,6-Dimethylnaphthalene

Acid Gases

  • Sulfuric Acid

  • Nitric Acid

  • Hydrochloric Acid

Criteria Pollutant Gases

  • Sulfur Dioxide

  • Nitrogen Dioxide

  • Ozone

  • Nitrogen Oxide

Particulates and Metals

  • Total Particulates

  • Chlorine

  • Vanadium

  • Magnesium

  • Calcium

  • Zinc

  • Nitrates

  • Nickel

  • Lead

  • Particulates <10 m m

  • Beryllium

  • Mercury

  • Aluminum

  • Cadmium

  • Arsenic

  • Sodium

  • Sulfate

  • Iron

  • Chromium


The USAEHA sampling and monitoring program has two limitations associated with the data. First, of the total oil wells initially ignited, approximately 20, or 8%, were extinguished by the time USAEHA began sampling and monitoring.[161] Therefore, the sampling and monitoring missed the peak period of pollutant discharge and atmospheric loading. Second, exposures began when Iraq ignited the first oil well fires in January 1991; they burned until November 1991. USAEHA’s air sampling effort began in May 1991, missing the winter months’ (February through April) more stagnant air conditions. Collectively, these data limitations resulted in understating the estimated risk associated with this exposure.

To compensate for the lack of February through April data, USAEHA applied an atmospheric model to "backfill" the missing data using state-of-the-art computer modeling techniques NOAA had developed.[162] The modeling exercise adjusted emission factors to account for extinguished fires and estimated air quality parameter concentrations at specific locations based on data collected during the USIAAT monitoring program in March 1991 and historical meteorological data.[163] USAEHA validated model results using real-time data obtained from fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft flying in the plume during monitoring studies sponsored by the World Meteorological Organization (see Section IV.D.3). The USAEHA Final Report’s Appendix B contains the air monitoring and sampling results; Appendix C contains soil sampling analysis results.[164]

The second GIS database component consisted of troop unit location data the US Joint Services Center for Unit Records Research (CURR) currently maintains at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. CURR maintains a database containing location information on more than 650,000 Active, Guard, and Reserve servicemembers and civilians and more than 13,300 individual military units deployed during Operations Desert Shield and Storm.

The database has specific fields for unit identification codes (UICs), unit names, locations, arrival and departure dates, and geographic coordinates.[165]

The third component consisted of plume tracking data. USAEHA used NOAA and Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites to monitor the Kuwait oil fires and associated smoke plumes and merged the satellite data with air dispersion modeling data to achieve agreement between plume locations and contaminant concentration levels.

USAEHA consolidated the three data sets to calculate troop unit exposure from oil well fires and subsequently to calculate health risks. By comparing results obtained with pre-war data, USAEHA’s sampling effort documented little deterioration in overall air quality despite the burning oil wells. [Section VI (Health Risk Assessment) discusses HRA results in more detail.]

As part of its overall health risk assessment, USAEHA used high-volume samplers at nine of the sites listed in Table 7 to collect PM10 samples[166] in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia from May 1991 through December 1991. To provide information on ambient air quality under more typical conditions and help differentiate between the inhalation risk posed by the oil well fires and that of background conditions in the region, USAEHA collected additional samples in November 1993 at the Khobar Towers and Camp Thunderock sites.[167]

Table 7. PM10 sampling locations in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia[168]

Sampling Site


Sampling Period

1- Khobar Towers Al-Dhahran, Saudi Arabia May 6-Dec 2, 1991
2- Camp 1 Al-Jubayl, Saudi Arabia May 8-Aug 4, 1991
3- KKMC King Khalid Military City, Saudi Arabia May 19-Aug 25, 1991
4- Eskan Village Al-Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 25-Aug 25, 1991
5- Camp Freedom Subhan, Kuwait May 11 – 17, 1991
6- Armed Forces Military Hospital Kuwait City, Kuwait May 17-Dec 2, 1991
7- US Embassy Kuwait City, Kuwait May 19-July 15, 1991
8- Camp Thunderock Doha, Kuwait June 6-Dec 2, 1991
9- Ahmadi Hospital Al-Ahmadi, Kuwait June 6-July 6, 1991
10- Camp Abdaly Abdaly, Kuwait May 19-June 5, 1991
11- (1) Khobar Towers Al-Dhahran, Saudi Arabia Nov 3-Nov 9, 1993
12- (8) Camp Thunderock Doha, Kuwait Nov 2-Nov 7,1993

The PM10 sampling program produced these results: elemental carbon data indicated oil fire plume soot constituted approximately 22% of the PM10 mass; sand-based particles accounted for about 77% of most samples’ particle mass;[169] and though USAEHA measured high levels of particulate matter, as noted previously, USAEHA considered these concentrations within a range common to this area of the Middle East.

Figure 19 compares monthly average respirable particulate concentrations at various Kuwait locations in 1991 and 1994, revealing the 1991 levels were lower than 1994 levels for June, July, August, October, and November and higher for May and September. Section V discusses health effects associated with exposures to particulates.

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Figure 19. Respirable particulate matter (PM10) comparisons in Kuwait (1991 and 1994) [170]

Furthermore, quantities of a number of VOCs (e.g., benzene, toluene, ethyl-benzene, and xylene) were similar to levels observed in several US cities, some containing major petrochemical industries (e.g., Houston and Philadelphia).[171,172]

Figure 20 qualitatively compares 1991 median VOC concentrations in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia with several US cities for the same time period.  These data are based on the median of all daily concentrations, generally 24-hour averages, collected using US EPA standard methods, reported within each selected city’s limits. Overall the median VOC concentrations of benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and the xylenes from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were near or less than US cities’ respective concentration values. Sampling and monitoring studies that other organizations conducted during this time reported similar findings. [See Section IV.D.3., World Meteorological Organization.]

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Figure 20. Median volatile organic concentration comparisons, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and US cities [173]


3. World Meteorological Organization.

The United Nations (UN) sponsored a third effort to assess and monitor regional air quality. At the request of the region’s governments, the UN established a framework to coordinate international efforts and a system to respond to requests for technical assistance, assessments, and health and environmental monitoring in the Gulf region. The United Nations Environment Programme General Council (UNEP) coordinated the international activities to respond to the human health and environmental impacts of the oil well fires. These activities included efforts conducted by member governments under various UN agencies’ auspices, such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and World Meteorological Organization (WMO), as well as the activities of the UN agencies themselves.

At a meeting in Geneva, April 27-30, 1991, the WMO, using USIAAT’s regional air monitoring plan as a basis, developed a comprehensive action plan for assessing and monitoring the Gulf region’s air quality. To predict the smoke’s long- and short-term effects on human health and the environment, the plan recognized the need to obtain data at different times and locations. Scientists from 12 countries, including Kuwait and neighboring countries, collected data that addressed two issues: 1) sampling air and monitoring the plume at various altitudes, and 2) data analysis, coordination, and modeling for local, regional, and global air quality predictions.[174,175]

These organizations and activities participated in WMO’s monitoring program:[176]

Table 8 summarizes WMO’s monitoring and sampling program results, which compare favorably to the US Interagency Team’s and USAEHA’s findings. The levels of nitric oxide (NO2), carbon monoxide (CO), sulfur dioxide (SO2), hydrogen sulfide (H2S), other pollutant gases, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) generally were below established standards while researchers observed elevated levels of airborne particulate matter (i.e., PM10) at several monitoring sites. [177,178]

Table 8. Summary of World Meteorological Organization sampling and monitoring


Sampling Date

Sampling Results
compared to US ambient and occupational standards

Kuwait Environmental Protection Department

April-June 1991



. .

. . . SO2 and O3 below NAAQS. H2S below Saudi standard. CO level approaches NAAQS. Particulate levels exceed NAAQS.
Airparif (French Team)

March 26-April 6, 1991

. .

. . . . . . SO2 below the 24-hour NAAQS level. O3, CO, and NO2 below NAAQS.
Norwegian Institute for Air Research

May 15-
June 17, 1991

. . . . . . .

. . . SO2 levels below NAAQS. PAH concentrations below NIOSH limits. Soot exceeds WHO guideline.
British Meteorological Office

March 22-April 2, 1991

. . . .

. . . . . . SO2 exceeds NAAQS but lower than NIOSH workplace level. O3 level lower than NAAQS.
National Institute of Standards and Technology

May 15, 1991

. . . . . . . .

. . . Particulate levels exceed NAAQS. PAH levels below NIOSH limits.
National Toxics Campaign Fund

May 15, 20, 21, 1991

. . . . . . .

. . . . . Levels below NIOSH and ACGIH limits.
National Science Foundation

May 16-June 12, 1991

. .


. .

. . . O3, NOx and CO levels below OSHA workday exposure levels. SO2 peak concentrations occasionally exceed limits. Particulates exceed standards.

July 28-August 8, 1991

. . . . . . . .

SO2 levels below NAAQS. Standards not available for calcium, chloride, and potassium.
German Team

March 3-
April 27, 1991

. . . . . . . . . . . . SO2 levels below NAAQS.
Japan Environment Agency

April 28-
May 5, 1991

. . .

. . . . . . . . Max SO2 level of 1146 m g/m3 (24-hour NAAQS standard is 472 m g/m3). NO2 levels below NAAQS.

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