Utahns may soon suffer gulf war syndrome-like symptoms from the tiny amounts of nerve gas that may escape smokestacks at an Army incinerator destroying chemical arms, a group of activists, scientists and investigators said Monday.
The Chemical Weapons Working Group, an umbrella organization for groups opposed to incinerating chemical arms, has made that assertion before in Utah. But this time, the group made it at a Capitol Hill press conference before national news media.The Army, of course, has long maintained that incineration is safe, and the National Academy of Sciences has supported that conclusion.
But Jim Tuite, a former Senate Banking Committee staffer who helped probe causes of gulf war syndrome, said, "Low-levels of nerve agent released by chemical weapons incinerators, by themselves or combined with other exposures may pose a risk to civilians similar to that our soldiers faced in the Persian Gulf."
Jerry Buccafusco, professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the Medical College of Georgia, agreed.
"The effect of low levels of nerve agent on the brain is very subtle, producing symptoms such as memory loss, which many gulf war veterans report," he said.
Buccafusco, who has a three-year research grant from the U.S. Army to study consequences of such low-level, long-term exposure to nerve agents, said, "We know far too little about the impacts on people who are slowly poisoned."
Lisa Puchner, founder and board member of the Salt Lake City-based Families Against Incineration Risk (FAIR), questioned, "Will our families face increased rates of cancer, birth defects and reproductive disorders from releases from these facilities?"
An incinerator at the Deseret Chemical Depot in Tooele County is the only chemical arms destruction incinerator now operating in the continental United States, although the Army has plans for five others. Alternative, non-burning methods are scheduled at two other bases storing nerve gas.
Craig Williams, spokesman for the Chemical Arms Working Group, which has unsuccessfully sued to stop Utah incineration, vowed his group will continue fighting to shut down the Utah plant and fighting for use of non-burning destruction techniques elsewhere.
Tuite complained the Army hasn't conducted studies on the effects on people of tiny levels of nerve gas when combined with other pesticides, smoke and chemicals in the environment.
He said the same people at the Pentagon who falsely reported soldiers were not exposed to chemical arms now tell Utahns and others they face no danger from similar compounds to which soldiers reporting gulf war syndrome were exposed.
"Trust is a valuable commodity that must be earned. The Army has not earned our trust," he said.
He added that the Army owes better research to affected citizens, or a "closed-loop" system that allows no dangerous waste to escape.