September 30, 2009

Wyden, Merkley Announce Investigation Into National Guard Exposure to Carcinogen

Washington, D.C. - The Inspector General for the Department of Defense will investigate whether actions by the U.S. Army and a contractor exposed Oregon National Guard troops to a harmful carcinogen in Iraq in 2003.The investigation is in response to a letter written by U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and five other senate colleagues calling on Inspector General Gordon Heddell to investigate whether the U.S. Army and KBR - a contractor hired to restore the Qarmat Ali Water injection facility to safe working order -- adequately protected servicemembers from harmful toxins.

In addition, the Department of Veterans Affairs has pledged a "complete and comprehensive response" to questions raised about the health and well-being of those service personnel.

"Oregon National Guard members have suffered serious health problems as a result of the deliberate contamination of the facility by the Iraqi army," Wyden said. "This investigation will determine whether the U.S. Army and KBR took appropriate precautions to safeguard the health of National Guard members and appropriate action after exposure. I thank the Inspector General for conducting this investigation and look forward to his report."

"There are many questions as to how American service personnel were exposed to this dangerous chemical," Merkley said. "I am pleased the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs have responded to our request for further investigation and look forward to a full and fair accounting of exactly what transpired. I will be monitoring this process carefully to ensure our men and women in uniform get the answers they deserve."

In April 2003, National Guard members from Oregon, Indiana, West Virginia, and South Carolina guarding the Qarmat Ali water facility in Iraq were exposed to sodium dichromate, a deadly carcinogen. Many soldiers reported that a distinctive orange powder covered the facility and was swept into the air, onto their clothes, faces and other areas of exposed skin. Soldiers quickly began to experience symptoms of sodium dichromate poisoning, including nasal perforations, and severe nosebleeds. At least one death has been attributed to the exposure and 420 Oregonian National Guard members have been exposed.

Testing for possible exposure did not begin until October 2003 and an initial investigation performed by the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventative Medicine concluded that there was not significant inhalation exposure from sodium dichromate despite independent estimates of exposure rates approximately 80 to 200 times the current limit allowed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

In March, Senators Wyden and Merkley joined Senators Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) in introducing the Health Care for Members of the Armed Forces Exposed to Chemical Hazards Act which will allow servicemembers exposed to harmful chemicals during deployment to receive lifelong medical care from the Veterans Administration as well as shift the burden of proof away from the veteran when seeking care for exposure related ailments.