Image via: johnrgunter on Flickr.com
When soldiers are engaged in battle, either foreign or domestic, they expect a certain amount of risk. Death by environmental exposure, though, isn't really one of them. This week Indiana National Guardsman Lt. Col. Jim Gentry was laid to rest, with the distinction of being "the first American soldier known to die from exposure to a cancer-causing toxin while serving in Iraq," reports the Evansville Courier & Press. Gentry may be gone but the issue isn't, as a growing group of soldiers are now in a legal battle over what they feel was improper protection of service men and women. The chemical in question is hexavalent chromium, which has been linked to leukemia, several cancers, liver and kidney damage. In Iraq it was used to prevent corrosion in water pipes that pumped water into the ground to "boost oil production." In the Iraqi desert, this chemical was blown on the clothing, faces and skin of soldiers where hundreds were exposed.
Those hundreds of soldiers are now suing KBR Inc., a defense contractor based in Houston, TX, that was responsible for fixing the pipes in the Qarmat Ali facility in 2003 and get them working again. This former Halliburton subsidiary, knew that Iraqi soldiers slashed open containers of the chemical when they left the facility, and exposed it to desert winds that blew it all around. The American and British soldiers guarding the facility were not warned of the dangers or given any protective covering.
Hexavalent Chromium was also the toxin that reared its ugly head in the movie Erin Brokovich. KBR claims that soldiers were only exposed for days or months, not long enough to cause any harm. The soldiers on the other hand disagree, stating that studies establishing permissible exposure levels were incorrectly conducted. Several other soldiers have also recently died but were unable to prove that hexavalent chromium was responsible.
Former KBR employee, Edward Blacke, says that when he toured the Qarmat Ali facility, that soldiers on hand were showing signs of exposure. Coughing up blood, breathing problems and eye, nose and throat irritations were common. Soldiers were told of the chemical but told that it was merely a mild irritant. Blacke was told to keep his mouth shut when he protested about the misinformation.
US Senator Evan Bayh, D-Ind, has also taken an interest in the case and is working to set up a registry that would ensure all soldiers would get treatment. It would be up to Veterans Affairs to prove that soldiers' illness are not related to chemical exposure, not the other way around.