WASHINGTON, March 20 (UPI) -- A U.S. Army official said Thursday the burning oil wells in Iraq present little health threat for soldiers, but other experts said the effects of inhaling the smoke could be serious and long-lasting.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday the Pentagon was trying to confirm reports Iraqi forces had set as many as four oil wells ablaze in southern Iraq.
"We're trying to be cautious but based on Kuwait in 1991 we're not anticipating great problems," Jack Heller, physiologist and manager for the deployment environmental surveillance program at the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine, told United Press International.
"It looks so much worse than it is," said Heller, who came in close contact with the burning oil wells in Kuwait in 1991 while conducting an assessment of risks posed to the troops for the Department of Defense.
Most of the effects will consist of short-term problems such as eye irritation and respiratory problems that will resolve as soon as the person moves out of the smoky area, he said.
However, Dr. Kaye Kilburn, a professor of medicine in University of Southern California's division of pulmonary and critical care medicine, said "two very likely results" would be deaths and chronic asthma.
"There were extremely severe effects" in the Gulf War veterans exposed to burning Kuwaiti oil wells in 1991, Kilburn told UPI. A lot of veterans developed asthma and some never fully recovered, he said.
"It's a very bad situation" and the only effective precaution is to avoid the smoke in the first place, Kilburn said, noting the smoke will gunk up gas masks and make it "like trying to almost breathe through oil."
In addition, oil vapors contain carcinogens and particulate matter that can get into the lungs and disrupt the body's cleansing mechanism as well as cause tumors, he said.
Heller noted one carcinogen called poly-aromatic hydrocarbon found in oil would be destroyed in the fire and the levels of two other carcinogens, toluene and benzene, likely would be too low to have much of an impact.
Another substance of concern is hydrogen sulfide, which is found in some oil wells in Iraq and can be lethal if breathed in a confined space.
"If you're a distance away, it's typically not going to be a big problem," Heller said. However, soldiers are being advised to get out of the area if they sense a rotten egg smell, which is indicative of hydrogen sulfide, he added.
Troops are being advised to stay about one mile away from any burning oil sites, Heller said.
David Schwartz, a professor of medicine and genetics at Duke University, said the worse effects would result only from high-dose exposure.
"From all we know, the risk of lung disease in incidentally exposed individuals or minimally exposed individuals is negligible," Schwartz, said.
High-dose exposures, such as in those who have to put the fires out, could cause quite a bit of burn and inflammation in the airway that can cause acute bronchitis and inflammatory lung disease, he said.
Schwartz added: "These are very high-dose exposure and not exposure one would encounter a mile away or half a mile away from the flames."
In addition, individuals who have to come into close contact with the fires will obviously wear protective equipment and "there is no clear evidence (the individuals who put out the fires in Kuwait) have developed respiratory problems," he said.