HC Deb 02 November 1998 vol 318 cc348-9W
Mr. Livingstone

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what is his Department's assessment of the number of British service personnel who were within range of the fallout from the demolition of the Iraqi nerve agent dump at Khamisiyah after the Gulf War in March 1991; how many British service personnel could have been exposed to nerve agents following the demolition of the dump; what work is currently being carried out to re-assess these figures; who is carrying out this work; when this work started and when it is expected to end; if this work is being carried out in co-operation with the United States Government; and if he will make a statement. [55332]

Mr. Doug Henderson

In September 1997, the US Department of Defense (DoD) published a report on the work it had undertaken to try to model the possible dispersion of nerve agent from the demolition of Iraqi chemical munitions at the Khamisiyah ammunition storage facility by US forces in March 1991. This report included a series of maps for successive days showing the theoretical dispersion plume of low concentrations of nerve agent arising from the Khamisiyah demolitions, as predicted by DoD computer modelling.

The Ministry of Defence (MOD) has been keeping in contact with the US authorities on this issue. After the DoD announcement, the MOD obtained a data package from them which allowed UK officials to construct maps on which the known locations of UK units could be plotted in relation to the DoD modelled plume. The initial work on these maps was completed in late 1997, following a trawl of available information as to the location of UK units on 10 and 11 March, which are the days when the DoD modelled plume was at its most extensive. This work was further updated in May of this year on the basis of further research into British unit locations. Overall, this established that on the critical two days, the following UK unit location data are available:

10 March 11 March
Total UK units in Theatre 175 175
Locations known1 67 72
Recent locations known2 51 47
Possible locations known3 39 38
Locations not known4 18 18
1Specific location information for the unit is available for the days in question.
2Specific location information is available for the unit some days prior to 10/11 March, in effect the last known location before 10/11 March.
3Some information is available for the unit which suggests a possible location for it on or about 10/11 March.
4No useful location data for the unit are available for the period around 10/11 March.

This location information is incomplete because UK units and formations officially returned to peacetime reporting procedures, and ceased to record location as a matter of routine, 1200 hours on 8 March (in fact, research has shown that some units ceased wartime reporting as early as 28 February).

Given that the first two stages of work had left a high degree of uncertainty as to many unit locations, it was decided to seek alternative sources of information in order to establish if the location data could be improved. This process is still under way and it is not possible to say when it may be completed or what the outcome may be. However, so far no major improvements in the data have been achieved.

The DoD modelling of the possible Khamisiyah plume is based on a series of worst case assumptions and has a number of limitations. These have been highlighted in the recent report on Gulf War Illnesses by the Special Investigation Unit on behalf of the US Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.

In view of the current limitations of the available location data on UK units and of the DoD modelling, at present the MOD is not able to give a realistic assessment of the number of UK Service personnel who might have been subject to possible exposure to nerve agent as a result of the Khamisiyah demolitions.

The DoD modelling predicts that personnel within the plume could have received a brief and low level exposure to nerve agent. Current medical evidence suggests that long term health problems would be unlikely to result from exposure to such low levels, although US authorities are funding several research studies to investigate this further.

In response to two questions asked in another place last October, the MOD has been undertaking a review of events concerning a particular UK unit, 32 Field Hospital, and the Khamisiyah incident. This review will include a detailed assessment of the significance of the nerve agent exposure predicted by the DoD modelling.

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