In the immediate aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, numerous efforts were undertaken to assess the air quality in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, primarily in the areas immediately downwind of the burning oil wells. The US Interagency Air Quality Assessment Team (USIAAT), USAEHA, and various national teams under a World Meteorological Organization program collected air quality sampling and monitoring data. Collectively, the data from these programs indicated that, with the exception of particulate matter, pollutant levels were surprisingly low. For example, a comparison was made between the 1991 median volatile organic compound (VOC) levels in cities in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and levels observed in several cities in the US for the same time period. Overall, with the exception of particulate matter concentrations, the median VOC concentrations for benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and the xylenes from the Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian sites were near or below the respective concentration values for the US cities.[15]

The largest and most comprehensive of the air-monitoring programs was conducted by the USAEHA. At the request of the US Army Surgeon General, the USAEHA developed an air sampling program to determine the magnitude and extent of pollutants released into the atmosphere from the burning oil wells. Sampling, conducted at eight locations in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, began in early May 1991 and continued through October 1991. The sampling focused on the expected by-products of crude oil combustion. In addition, the USAEHA also collected PM10 air samples using high-volume samplers.

To further assess ambient air quality in the region, the USAEHA collected additional PM10 samples in the November to December 1991 timeframe at two sites after the oil well fires were extinguished. These additional samples provided "baseline" information on ambient air quality under more typical conditions; they helped differentiate the added inhalation risk posed by the oil well fires, as distinct from the "everyday" pollution sources in the region. In general, the USAEHA frequently observed high levels of airborne particulate matter (sand and soot) at several monitoring sites. Table 1 presents the PM10 average and the maximum observed concentrations at the eight sampling locations. These concentrations are 24-hour averages and represent the air quality during the May to October 1991 period, in which the oil wells were burning. As such, they represent a "worst-case" condition, in that the particulate levels reflect the contributions from various background sources as well as the oil fires.

Table 1. PM10 Concentrations by Site[16]

Air Monitoring Location

Average Concentration[17] (m g/m3)

Maximum Concentration[18] (m g/m3)

US Embassy, Kuwait



King Khalid Military City, Saudi Arabia



Khobar Towers, Saudi Arabia



Al Jubayl, Saudi Arabia



Military Hospital, Kuwait



Al Eskan Village, Saudi Arabia



Camp Thunderock, Kuwait



Ahmadi Hospital, Kuwait



The PM10 samples were analyzed to determine the chemical and physical properties of the particulate matter. This information was used in turn as part of a detailed risk assessment related to Department of Defense (DoD) military and civilian exposures to contaminants associated with the burning oil wells.

Analysis of the chemical composition of the samples indicated that roughly 75% of the airborne particulate matter measured in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in 1991 consisted of clays, primarily calcium and silica. That is, it originated from the sand indigenous to this part of the world. Another 10% to 23% were carbon (soot) that originated from a combination of sources that included the oil fires and the various industrial sources, and less than 10% originated from salt and miscellaneous sources.[19] Figure 1 shows the particulate matter composition in the Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian air samples taken in 1991. These values represent total percent composition of each component without regard to their respirable size fraction (i.e., that fraction capable of being respirated into the lower portion of the respiratory tract). The respirable PM10 air samples were subsequently analyzed for the silica component.

Although high levels of particulate matter were observed, these concentrations fell within a range consistent with background levels observed in Kuwait where the average level of PM10 is nearly 600 m g/m3, the highest in the world.[20]

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Figure 1. Particulate Composition of Air Samples in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait [21]

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