May 8, 1997

Panel Advises Telling Troops of Mustard-Gas Exposure


CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Investigators for a White House panel of experts called on the Pentagon on Wednesday to tell some American and British troops that they may have been exposed to Iraqi mustard gas when they examined a leaking 300-gallon tank in a girls' school in Kuwait several months after the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

The staff of the panel, the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, said its investigation showed that the detection of mustard gas in the metal tank in August 1991 was "credible" and that troops who were nearby at the time of the leak should be notified of the potential health risks.

This is the second time the White House panel, which held a regional meeting in Charleston on Wednesday, has called for the notification of troops who were in the vicinity of a possible release of deadly chemical weapons after the Gulf war.

In the other case, the Defense Department last year notified about 20,000 Gulf war veterans that they may have been exposed to a cloud of nerve gas after the demolition of a large Iraqi ammunition depot in March 1991,

The number of soldiers who may have been exposed at the girls' school near Kuwait City is a tiny fraction of that number -- perhaps 20 -- although an unknown number of other American troops may have been exposed to mustard agent when they later moved the metal tank out of the school and disposed of it.

While the Pentagon said Wednesday that it did not necessarily accept the panel's finding that there was a valid detection of mustard gas at the school, Defense Department officials said they would probably follow through on its recommendation to notify the troops.

"As the PAC has made this recommendation, it sounds like one we concur with," said Lt. Gen. Dale Vesser, retired, deputy director of the Pentagon's investigation of the illnesses of Gulf war veterans.

Although scientists are divided on the question of whether exposure to trace levels of chemical weapons can lead to chronic health problems, the Pentagon has encouraged all Gulf war veterans to have special medical check-ups.

Last week the White House panel issued a report to President Clinton that criticized the Pentagon for moving too slowly to notify troops of the possibility that they had been exposed to chemical weapons during and after the war.

Until last year the Defense Department had repeatedly insisted that there was no evidence to show that chemical weapons were stored in Kuwait during the Gulf war.

The Pentagon's assertions had been challenged by several Army soldiers and marines who were stationed in Kuwait and who employed the most sophisticated chemical equipment used during the war: the mobile chemical-detection laboratories known as Fox vehicles.

A Fox vehicle was called to the girls' school in Kuwait after noxious brown vapor was found seeping through a bullet hole in a leaking metal drum that had been left by fleeing Iraqi troops. The computerized detection equipment aboard the vehicle identified mustard, a deadly blister agent. A British soldier was reported to have fallen ill at the scene.

In the past, when asked about the incident, Pentagon officials had suggested that detection of mustard gas had been a false alarm and that the vat had actually been filled with liquid jet fuel.

But the staff of the White House panel said in a statement Wednesday that "the evidence from the best detectors available in the field indicates mustard was present" and that "exposure should be presumed."

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company

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