During the 1991 Gulf War, the Iraqi army set Kuwait oil wells on fire. Wells and some oil refineries were burned, resulting in Kuwait and the surrounding Gulf region being exposed to toxic gases. The oil fires reached their peak in February 1991. On March 7, the fires in some fields were still burning at peak strength. Sulfur dioxide, particulates, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides were emitted into the atmosphere. All of these substances can cause adverse health effects, which vary according to concentration and duration of exposure. A survey conducted in Kuwait clinics and emergency rooms showed an increase in upper respiratory irritation consistent with environmental air sampling results, indicating occasional high levels of particulates. Patient visits related to gastrointestinal illness, heart disease, psychiatric illness, chronic bronchitis and emphysema, and bronchiectasis increased during the period following the burning of the oil wells. There was no documented evidence of an increase in visits for acute upper and lower respiratory infections or asthma. Public health workers must recognize the high priority of collecting long-term health data and developing public health systems to assess those data.
Copyright 1997 Academic Press.