Meteorological and intelligence evidence of long-distance transit of chemical weapons fallout from bombing early in the 1991 Persian Gulf War

Neuroepidemiology. 2013;40(3):160-77. doi: 10.1159/000345123. Epub 2012 Dec 14.


Background: Coalition bombings on the night of 18-19 January 1991, early in the Gulf War, targeted the Iraqi chemical weapons infrastructure. On 19 January 1991, nerve agent alarms sounded within Coalition positions hundreds of kilometers to the south, and the trace presence of sarin vapor was identified by multiple technologies. Considering only surface dispersion of plumes from explosions, officials concluded that the absence of casualties around bombed sites precluded long-distance transit of debris to US troop positions to explain the alarms and detections. Consequently, they were discounted as false positives, and low-level nerve agent exposure early in the air war was disregarded in epidemiologic investigations of chronic illnesses.

Intelligence data: Newly assembled evidence indicates that plumes from those nighttime bombings of Iraqi chemical facilities would have traversed the stable nocturnal boundary layer and penetrated the residual layer where they would be susceptible to rapid transit by supergeostrophic winds. This explanation is supported by plume height predictions, available weather charts, weather satellite images showing transit of a hot air mass, effects of solar mixing of atmospheric layers, and observations of a stationary weather front and thermal inversion in the region.

Conclusions: Current evidence supports long-distance transit. Epidemiologic studies of chronic postwar illness should be reassessed using veterans' reports of hearing nerve agent alarms as the measure of exposure.

MeSH terms

  • Bombs*
  • Chemical Warfare Agents / adverse effects
  • Chemical Warfare Agents / analysis*
  • Gulf War*
  • Humans
  • Meteorological Concepts*
  • Military Personnel*
  • Time Factors
  • Transportation / methods*
  • United States
  • United States Department of Defense


  • Chemical Warfare Agents