More American troops may have been exposed to dangerous chemical gas in the Persian Gulf war than previously reported, U.N. inspectors said Wednesday during the second day of a two-day meeting in Buffalo of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses.
The inspectors said the additional exposure may have occurred when the Ukhaydir depot, which stored mustard gas, was destroyed in 1991. The depot is about 185 miles north of the Saudi city of Rafha, where thousands of U.S. service members were deployed.
The Pentagon reported last week that 98,900 U.S. soldiers were exposed to trace amounts of poison gas when the Khamisiyah ammunition depot in southern Iraq was demolished March 10, 1991.
The Associated Press reported that U.N. inspector Charles Duelfer told the advisory committee meeting in the Buffalo Hilton that he had seen 104 burned and cracked shells, believed to be damaged at Ukhaydir.
"They did not appear like a lot would have leaked out over a wide area," he said.
However, Duelfer said, the number of destroyed shells may have been much greater.
Iraq has said 550 of the mustard gas shells were destroyed during the war but has not indicated where they were stored.
"It is at least possible that they were destroyed at Ukhaydir," Duelfer said.
Preliminary computer models suggested that the mustard gas cloud probably did not reach Saudi Arabia, U.S. officials told The New York Times. The CIA and military learned of the Iraqi report of chemical weapons in Ukhaydir earlier this year.
"Obviously, you don't want to end up alarming people about a situation like this," Robert D. Walpole, who is overseeing the CIA investigation of chemical exposures during the gulf war, told the Times.
But Walpole said that if all of the rockets reportedly at the site had been destroyed, the cloud of chemicals would have "come close" to Rafha.
"We need to do modeling to determine whether there was any U.S. downwind hazard from that bombing," said James Turner, the committee's chief investigator.
The advisory committee was created in 1995 to investigate ailments reported by thousands of gulf war veterans. Scientists are divided on the question of whether trace levels of chemical weapons could produce the health problems veterans have complained of.
The committee is expected to make its final report Oct. 31.