Military doctors reported soon after the end of the Persian Gulf War that Marines had been exposed to hazardous hydrocarbons from burning oil wells, according to military documents.
Military and civilian doctors also debated the health risks of crude oil during the airwar against Iraq. A report apparently distributed to military personnel on Feb. 22, 1991 -- two days before the ground war began -- described a battlefield rife with environmental hazards and suggested precautions that military personnel could take.
Virginia Stephanakis, a spokeswoman for the Army surgeon general's office, confirmed yesterday that the Army is seeking the help of outside civilian medical experts to determine if petroleum poisoning, an adverse reaction to the hydrocarbons and other elements found in petroleum, may be responsible for sick Gulf War vets.
"That doesn't mean that we necessarily confirm the diagnoses that have been reported by civilian physicians, but we've always considered every possibility," she said. "We want to make sure whether or not that really is a problem."
Civilian medical experts have concluded that at least two Gulf War veterans are suffering from petroleum poisoning. Private
medical researchers and veterans groups have documented that more than 200 veterans are suffering from mysterious ailments, a number they say grows daily.
Steve Robertson, a lobbyist for the American Legion, the nation's largest veterans organization, said he is concerned that the Defense Department is responding too slowly to the health problems of service members who served in the Persian Gulf.
He referred to a workshop Feb. 14-15, 1991, attended by more than 20 military doctors and civilian experts from the oil industry to discuss "medical effects of crude oil exposures."
A report completed one week later noted that "volatile hydrocarbon compounds" increased the potential for dermatitis and secondary skin infections and "pose a significant inhalation hazard" that could be life-threatening in high concentrations.
Within a few months after the 1991 report, Navy doctors examining Marines in Kuwait raised concern about the effects of their exposure to petroleum and smoke from the oil-well fires set by Iraqi forces.