U.S. Soldiers, who have been sickened by a chemical that’s been found in meth labs, are fighting a new war against an engineering and construction contractor, a contractor they feel is responsible for the health problems they have suffered as a result of their exposure to a deadly chemical.
National Guard members from Indiana, Oregon, and West Virginia, are among the other U.S. soliders and civilians who have filed lawsuits against KBR, Inc, for their failure to protect them from being exposed to Hexavalent Chromium (Chromium VI).
In 2003, soldiers who stood guard outside of the Qarmat Ali plant, unknowingly breathed in a potent carcinogen known as Chromium VI. Iraqis were using the chemical to keep water pipes from corroding at the plant that they were trying to rebuild. Sickened by their exposure to the deadly chemical, the soldiers allege that KBR knowingly put their health at risk. Soldier further allege that KBR minimized their complaints of breathing problems and nose bleeds by suggesting that they were caused by allergies to the desert sand and air.
Chromium VI or Hexavalent Chromium can cause serious health problems, including liver and kidney damage, leukemia, and cancers that can afflict bone, stomach, and the brain among others. According to Max Costa, chairman of the NYU Department of Environmental Medicine, Chromium VI is a potent cancer causing chemicals -it can enter every body cell and cause injury to every major organ in the body. According to reports by The National Toxicology Program hexavalent chromium can cause cancer and increases the risk of rare gastrointestinal tumors.
Chromium-VI, it also the deadly chemical that was featured in the movie “Erin Brockovitch”, that starred Julia Robberts in 2000. The movie “Erin Brockovitch” was inspired by the real-life experiences of residents of Hinkley, California who were sicked as a result of drinking and bathing in water in their homes that was contaminated with Chromium VI. A lawsuit on their behalf filed by Erin Brockovitch and her boss, Attorney Ed Masry, showed that the illnesses suffered by Hinkley residents were a direct result of their exposure to Chromium VI and Pacific Gas and Electric was responsible. In 1996, over 600 residents of Hinkley, California were awarded $333 million dollars in damages as a result of the lawsuit.
Although the circumstances surrounding the lawsuit filed by the soldiers and civilians against KBR and two subsidiary companies, are different, their stories are the same. People who have been exposed to Chromium VI can suffer from some very serious health problems. While the soldiers, civilians, and KBR may disagree on what caused their illness, they all agree that Chromium VI, the deadly chemical used by the Iraqis to keep water pipes from corroding at the facility, had contaminated the area.
One soldier remembered sitting on a bag of chemicals in 137 degree heat while he ate his lunch. There was so much dust in the air, he recalls, that he had use the water in his canteen to wash off his chicken patty that was coated with an orange residue. He later got sick to his stomach, coughed repeatedly, and had chest pains so severe that they radiated to his back. On the days he worked at the site he recalled that when it came to his health, he always “had something weird going on”.
Soldiers in Iraq who worked in the area contaminated by Chromium VI have been afflicted by serious health problems including cancer. Some have fared worse and have lost their lives from the effect of the toxins on their body.
(Kentucky) Russ Kimberling, commander of the Indiana National Guard company in 2003 was transported to Germany for severe sinus problems after visiting the KBR plant. Kimberling died from lung disease at the age of 42. In 2003, he recalled wearing chemical suits during the first few weeks that he was in Iraq.
A former Oregon Guardsman needed to have stomach surgery after he returned to the states. He continues to suffer from post-traumatic stress, mood swings, nose polyps, chest pains and debilitating migraines. He says he has a long list of things that happened to him, while he was in Iraq. He is has been listed as 100% disabled.
A former Indiana Guardsman, a father to two children, who now works as a pharmaceutical sales rep in Louisville, KY, says he can’t get life insurance because his exposure to Hexavalent Chromium is listed in his medical records. He’s 38 years old, but says he feels like he is walking around in a 60 year old body. He worries that health problems will catch up with him one day.
Another soldier, who served two tours of duty in Iraq, has suffered from rashes, ear problems, shortness of breath and cancer in his ribs and his spine, cancer that his doctor believes was triggered by his exposure to Chromium-VI.
An Oregon soldier, who was exposed to Chromium VI, died from complications of leukemia at the age of 21.
Other soldiers and National Guardsmen report having breathing problems, chronic coughs, and problems with their immune systems.
Other soldiers exposed to the deadly chemical have complained of chest pain, respiratory problems, rashes, ear problems, shortness of breath, migraines, and sleepless nights.
While the soldiers and civilians say their illnesses were caused by their exposure to Chromium-VI, KBR claims it is not responsible. Although they admit that they found the Chromium-6 at the Qarmat Ali plant, they say they restricted access to the area, while it was being cleaned up and “did not knowingly harm troops.” But according to Mike Doyle, a Houston lawyer that is representing the soldiers and civilians, KBR knew the chemicals was there as early as May 2003, but they didn’t shut down the site until September.
KBR says that studies show that you have to be exposed to the chemical for at least two years for the health problems to occur and workers were only exposed to the chemical for a few days or months. Attorney Doyle differs with that opinion, because cancer can take a long time to appear, possibly 5, 10, or more years. Unfortunately, some of Doyle’s clients are already struggling with serious health problems – including cancer.
KBR further claims that the soldiers’ health problems could not be related to their exposure to hexavalent chromium, based on air quality studies that were conducted at the site. According to KBR, air quality studies showed that those working at the site were not exposed to high levels of the chemical. They believe that complaints about nosebleeds and breathing problems were likely caused by sand allergies or respiratory problems caused by the desert air not Chromium VI. But, other studies about hexavalent chromium say that 40 micrograms of it (about the size of a grain of sand in a cubic yard) creates a significant increase of cancers of the brain, renal system, bladder, bones, lungs, and leukemia. Soldiers were shocked to learn that their exposure to so little of the chemical could possibly lead to illness and death.
Ashby contacted his doctor at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The doctor diagnosed Ashby’s chronic wheezing and breathing as an “unknown upper respiratory problem.”
The soldiers say the tests were taken when the wind wasn’t blowing, like it did on days when the wind blew so hard that it ripped open bags of the chemical that turned the air in to a yellow-orange haze that covered everything in its path, including their skin and clothing. One man, who worked for a subsidiary of KBR, says the wind would blow at 30 to 40 mph, making it nearly impossible to see where you were going, a situation he says resulted in him spitting out blood. He said he wasn’t the only person who did that, either. Another soldier reported driving up to the plant one day in 2003 and seeing people dressed in Hazmat suits, the sight of which caused him to be concerned that they weren’t told to put on any protective gear.
A KBR employee, who testified at a Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing last year, also says he had breathing problems because of his exposure to the chemicals. He says when he complained about it, he was forced to resign under pressure from the company. He says the company did not provide him with any information about the chemical or the kind of chemical equipment that he should wear to protect his himself against it. Nearly 60% of those who worked at the water treatment facility are now exhibiting health problems.
A deposition made on the behalf of the soldiers and civilians, by a chemical expert, appears to back up their claims that their health problems could have been caused by hexavalent chromium. The health problems noted by the expert included severe liver and kidney damage as well as cancers such as leukemia, bone and stomach cancer, as well as other cancers.
Hexavalent chromium is a toxic component of sodium dicormate, a chemical contaminant used to make methamphetamine, according to the Colorado Brownfields Foundation. So, anyone exposed to it, either through cooking meth or living in a home that’s been contaminated by meth manufacturing, may also be at risk of developing health problems. But, how serious are those health problems? According to Max Costa, chairman of New York University’s Department of Environmental Medicine, hexavalent chromium “is one of the most potent carcinogens know to man”. In other words, it is likely to cause cancer.
According to the EPA Chromium 6 – “Cr(VI) is present in many different compounds that have a variety of industrial applications. Examples of major industrial uses of Cr(VI) compounds include: chromate pigments in dyes, paints, inks, and plastics; chromates added as anticorrosive agents to paints, primers, and other surface coatings; and chromic acid electroplated onto metal parts to provide a decorative or protective coating.
In the EPA’s examples of Cr(VI) compounds (below), the EPA lists some other chemicals that are also found in meth lab homes, that are related to Chromium-6:
ammonium dichromate ((NH4)2Cr2O7);
calcium chromate (CaCrO4);
chromium trioxide or chromic acid (CrO3);
lead chromate (PbCrO4)
potassium chromate (K2CrO4);
potassium dichromate (K2Cr2O7);
sodium chromate (Na2CrO4);
strontium chromate (SrCrO4);
zinc chromate (ZnCrO4).
Here’s what the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says about Chromium 6:
“Breathing high levels of chromium(VI) can cause irritation to the lining of the nose, nose ulcers, runny nose, and breathing problems, such as asthma, cough, shortness of breath, or wheezing. The concentrations of chromium in air that can cause these effects may be different for different types of chromium compounds, with effects occurring at much lower concentrations for chromium(VI) compared to chromium(III). The main health problems seen in animals following ingestion of chromium(VI) compounds are irritation and ulcers in the stomach and small intestine and anemia.Sperm damage and damage to the male reproductive system have also been seen in laboratory animals exposed to chromium(VI). Skin contact with certain chromium(VI) compounds can cause skin ulcers. Some people are extremely sensitive to chromium(VI) or chromium(III). Allergic reactions consisting of severe redness and swelling of the skin have been noted. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the International Agency for Reseach on Cancer (IARC), and the EPA have determined that chromium(VI) compounds are known human carcinogens. In workers, inhalation of chromium(VI) has been shown to cause lung cancer. Chromium(VI) also causes lung cancer in animals. An increase in stomach tumors was observed in humans and animals exposed to chromium(VI) in drinking water. It is likely that health effects seen in children exposed to high amounts of chromium will be similar to the effects seen in adults. We do not know if exposure to chromium will result in birth defects or other developmental effects in people. Some developmental effects have been observed in animals exposed to chromium(VI).”
Sharon Cohen, AP National Writer, “Iraq: Did chemical make soldiers sick?”, 6/29/09, Kimberly Hefling in Washington, D.C., also contributed to the AP article, http://www.fox10tv.com/dpp/news/military/military_ap_IraqDidchemicalmakesoldierssick_20090629_2586267
Colorado Brownfields Foundation, http://www.coloradobrownfieldsfoundation.org/meth.html
Julie Sullivan, “Sickened Iraq Veterans from Oregon seek help”, The Oregonian, http://www.oregonlive.com/news/index.ssf/2009/05/sickened_iraq_veterans_from_or.html
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2008. Toxicological Profile for Chromium. (Draft for Public Comment). Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.
Where to get more information about exposure to Chromium 6:
ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) can tell you where to find occupational and environmental health clinics. Their specialists can recognize, evaluate, and treat illnesses resulting from exposure to hazardous substances. You can also contact your community or state health or environmental quality department if you have any more questions or concerns.
For more information, contact:
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Division of Toxicology and Environmental Medicine
1600 Clifton Road NE, Mailstop F-62
Atlanta, GA 30333
Phone: 1-800-CDC-INFO • 888-232-6348 (TTY)
Email the CDC