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Americans in Dhahran Uneasy About Health Effects of Smoke With PM-Kuwait-Environment, Bjt

October 29, 1991

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia (AP) _ Eight months after a greasy haze of burning oil well smoke descended on this key oil city and military base, American joggers are venturing out again - without surgical masks.

The Persian Gulf war may be long over, but the health dangers of the fumes drifting over from burning oil wells in Kuwait are almost as alarming as the Scud missle attacks for the large U.S. community in Dhahran.

Many of the 11,000 American civilians working in the city and the rest of the Eastern Province, concerned about health, sent their families home to the United States when missiles began raining down in January.

At home, they have fitted muslin liners onto air-conditioners that turn inky black within a week. They also have purchased more sophisticated electric air purifiers.

″I can’t ask my wife to return from Houston and breathe this air,″ said oilman Derek Ellis, one of many residents who voiced concern about the long- term effects of the pollution.

Kathleen Garrett, a radiology technician, said she worried about health but after sticking it out through the gulf war, she planned to stay.

″The problem is a serious one, and I am concerned,″ Ms. Garrett said. ″But I didn’t run out of the kingdom when the Scuds were falling and I guess I won’t leave because the air isn’t perfect.″

Dhahran was the vital rear base for Operation Desert Storm, which at its height involved 540,000 American soldiers. Since then, the number of U.S. military personnel in the Eastern Province has dwindled to 14,000.

In the civilian world, companies tell employees the air is completely safe, well below official toxic levels. Charts detailing chemical particles in the air are produced to back up the claims.

But Saudi doctors have reported a marked increase in upper-respiratory illness, eye ailments and skin diseases, especially among the young and elderly. These are especially common when the winds shift and blow steel-gray oil clouds over the Eastern and Central provinces.

When the cloud first descended in January, only a few hardy joggers ventured out, wearing surgical masks. Even now, there are fewer joggers than before the war.

The most insidious effect of the smoke is the cancer-causing agents that it carries, said Dr. Jerrold Bushberg, a clinical associate professor of nuclear medicine from the University of California at Davis.

Bushberg said in an interview in Dhahran that in the long run, these carcinogens are potentially more dangerous than overt problems such as respiratory illness.

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