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National Guardsmen Exposed to Chromium in Iraq

Lethal Exposure of US Troops to Hexavalent Chromium in Iraq-Pentagon Contractor KBR at Fault?

In 2003, members of the Oregon, South Carolina and Indiana National Guard were stationed at the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant in southern Iraq. During their tour of duty, they were exposed to hexavalent chromium, a known human carcinogen. The National Guard was present to protect KBR's civilian workers while the repairs were being completed. KBR, a Houston-based Pentagon contractor, had been hired to repair the plant as part of the Restore Iraq Oil (RIO) project. The plant, which provides water to the southern oil fields of Iraq, had been contaminated with sodium dichromate by the Iraqi Baath party--loyalists to Saddam Hussein--before they abandoned the plant prior to the invasion of Iraq by the US. Sodium dichromate, a substance used to clear corrosion on pipes, contains hexavalent chromium. Hexavalent chromium increases the risk of lung cancer when inhaled on a regular basis for even short periods of time.

KBR Was Aware of the Deadly Toxic Contamination

According to Ed Blacke, former KBR employee, KBR chose to ignore both a UN report and an internal memorandum from their own industrial hygienist regarding the severity of the hexavalent chromium contamination at the plant. ("The Exposure at Qarmat Ali: Contractor Misconduct and the Safety of U.S. Troops in Iraq," Senate Democratic Policy Hearing, June 2008) While working at the plant, Mr. Black noted that both civilian employees and the National Guard showed symptoms consistent with exposure to hexavalent chromium including continuous bloody noses, spitting up of blood, coughing, irritation of the nose, eyes, throat and lungs, and shortness of breath. However, when he brought this to the attention of his KBR managers, they informed him that he was being "insubordinate, disruptive and that his input was not appreciated."

In July 2003, KBR held a meeting with both its employees and the National Guard to allay fears over the presence of hexavalent chromium so that repairs to the plant could be completed on schedule. The two KBR employees conducting the meeting, safety manager Tommy Mornay and medical supervisor Ray Garcia, called it a "mild irritant" and did not offer chemical hazard gear for those working or stationed at the plant. Finally, in September 2003 after KBR managers in environmental protective gear inspected the plant, KBR closed it down to effect a clean-up operation.

Possible Health Effects of Hexavalent Chromium on Those Stationed at Qarmat Ali

The exposure to hexavalent chromium at Qarmat Ali occurred during early 2003 through September 2003. Members of the 1st Battalion, 152nd Infantry of the Indiana National Guard were still present at the plant in September 2003. Those stationed at the plant during that time frame may now be experiencing serious health risks due to their exposure to hexavalent chromium:

  • Lt. Col James Gentry, a nonsmoker all his life, is dying from a rare, small-cell lung cancer. Lt. Col. Gentry was the battalion commander of the 137 Indiana National Guardsman stationed in Iraq to protect the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant. He spent approximately 140 hours in the plant and feels that his disease is a direct result of his exposure to hexavalent chromium there.
  • Sergeant David Moore, a smoker, died in February 2008 of interstitial lung disease. A review by Veterans Affairs stated that the death was service-related.
  • Other members of the battalion stationed at the plant are exhibiting symptoms consistent with exposure to hexavalent chromium such as nasal tumors, respiratory problems, and recurring blisters on their skin.

One of the main concerns is that lung cancer, and other forms of cancer that may be caused by exposure to hexavalent chromium, will not show up for many years. Major General R. Marine Umbarger, head of the Indiana National Guard, found out about his troops' exposure to the deadly chemical in June 2008. The National Guard is in the process of tracking down all of the soldiers who may have been exposed at the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant near Basra, Iraq.

Senate Hearings Held, Indiana Sen. Bayh Calls for Army Investigation

In June 2008, a congressional hearing was held to investigate KBR's alleged cover-up of the 2003 plant contamination and subsequent exposure of the National Guard troops providing security there. At the hearing, civilian contractors, Danny Langford and Ed Blacke, testified that they and others experienced symptoms of hexavalent chromium exposure while working at the plant:

  • skin rashes
  • bleeding from the mouth and nose
  • sinus, throat and respiratory irritation
  • hacking cough
  • eye irritation
  • shortness of breath

During their testimony, they also revealed that KBR had tested the blood of their civilian employees in August 2003, finding high levels of chromium and other heavy metals.

On September 23, 2008, Indiana Senator Evan Bayh called for an Army investigation of the 2003 hexavalent chromium exposure. The Defense Health Board returned their review of the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine Assessment of Sodium Dichromate Exposure at Qarmat Ali Water Treatment Plant in late December 2008. The initial assessment had taken place from September 30 to November 2, 2003 after, according to the testimony heard at the June 2008 Congressional hearing, KBR had made steps to contain the hexavalent chromium contamination at the plant. In its review, the Defense Health Board stated that the chromium blood tests showed results that "were marginally above, at, or below the detection limit of the test method."

However, Sen. Bayh remains concerned over the potential health effects on those Indiana National Guardsman exposed to the toxic chemical. His office consulted with an outside expert, Dr. Max Costa, who also testified at the June 2008 Congressional hearing. Concerns outlined by Dr. Costa's testimony were twofold. First, was the proper test done--one that tests for the levels of chromium in red blood cells instead of in the serum or urine? Secondly, did testing for hexavalent chromium occur within the 90-day exposure window to accurately test for the presence of hexavalent chromium within the red blood cells? At the very least, Sen. Bayh hopes to establish a registry, much like the one for those military personnel exposed to Agent Orange. An establishment of such a registry would ensure that those in the military who are exposed to toxic chemicals during wartime are given "priority status" at Veterans Affairs health facilities.

For more information on hexavalent chromium exposure, see Safety and Health Topics: Hexavalent Chromium available on the web site of the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). If you feel you may have been exposed to hexavalent chromium and wish to explore your legal options, please contact one our attorneys that specialize in toxic exposure.

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