Iraq: Polluting its Own Back Yard

January 25, 1991

Carl Sagan, a key proponent of the "nuclear winter" theory of how soot, dust and smoke from nuclear bomb blasts could chill the world's climate, says Iraq's continued burning of Kuwaiti oil facilities, supplemented by fires in Iran, southern Iraq and Saudi Arabia, could alter the climate of areas as far off as Pakistan and India.

Oil smoke is thicker and blacker than the ash that darkened the skies after the Tambora volcanic eruption in Indonesia in 1815 and caused "the year without summer," Dr. Sagan says. Thus, it is conceivable that 450,000 tons of soot dumped into the air from Kuwait's 360 oil wells could even alter the world's climate.

But there are many "ifs" here: If the Iraqi, Iranian and Saudi oil fields also burn. If the fires go on for months, unimpeded. If prevailing winds and other climate effects add to the danger. Other researchers think Dr. Sagan's view is overly pessimistic. The most widely agreed threat is the fouling of gulf water-treatment facilities by spilled oil.

Time will tell whether Dr. Sagan is right or wrong. What is already apparent, however, is the ecological danger posed by Iraq's chemical and biological warfare facilities, under repeated assault by smart bombs from U.S. and coalition aircraft.

Nerve gas, a super-potent form of chemicals found in some insect sprays, could poison the area all around a storage facility shattered by bomb blasts. Mustard gas, a horror first unleashed in World War I, can persist for years in affected tissues. Blood agents, such as hydrogen cyanide, interfere with the functioning of oxygen-carrying cells. And bacteriological agents -- diseases such as anthrax -- might persist in contaminated wildlife long after a bomb opened their containment.

There are ways to decontaminate chemical and biological sites, of course, and the effects of sunlight and weathering gradually eliminate many threats. Someone has to probe the sites and determine the type and intensity of contamination, its spread and the likelihood of further spread by wandering humans, desert animals or plants, however. Did it get into a stream? Someone has to secure the sites and begin the decontamination.

In storing such extensive supplies of deadly chemicals and biological agents, the Iraqis created a menace on their own territory. Wartime air raids have spread some of the poison Iraq intended for others onto Iraqi soil. Coupled with the nuclear materials that may have been spewed when U.S. warplanes demolished two Iraqi reactors, those poisons may imperil Iraqis and their neighbors a long time after the shooting stops.

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