Extreme drought, floods, hurricanes with devastating effects: according to a DW report of 1 May 2019, experts currently expect billions of people to be on the run around 2050. However, not from wars, but from environmental disasters that cause unbearable living conditions due to famine and diseases due to poor hygienic conditions.
21 June 2023
Burning oil spills in Kuwait
based on a publication of The Guardian on 11 December 2021
A very special topic that is very close to the heart of the founders of the Blue Building Environmental Organisation, for personal reasons.
A short journey into the past:
When Iraqi troops withdrew from Kuwait at the end of the Persian Gulf War in early 1991, they set fire to more than 600 oil wells in Kuwait. This inflicted significant economic damage on the country's lucrative oil industry.
According to the Encyclopedia, Kuwait has about 9 % of the world's proven oil reserves, and oil revenues account for 95 % of the country's export earnings. The oil well fires posed a serious threat not only to the environment but also to human health in the Persian Gulf region. Also, the geographical and climatic conditions in the Persian Gulf region had a massive impact on the natural ecosystems. The uneven heating of the land and sea surfaces led to local atmospheric inversions during the summer months, which trapped the smoke in the lower atmosphere and occasionally caused plumes to cover the Kuwaiti land surface. Severe sandstorms, driven by strong summer winds, mixed sand and dust with the plumes.
But anyone who thinks that this was 30 years ago, that the burning oil fields have long since been extinguished and that all problems have been solved - is wrong.
The Guardian reports in an article of 11 December 2021 that more than 30 years later, Kuwait is still scarred by the catastrophic damage despite all the promises. Billions earmarked for rehabilitation are still waiting to be spent.
An environmental consultant with the Kuwait Oil Company, Meshari Almutairi, claimed that when he first visited the lake in 2015, he was able to shovel out the bottom to expose a shade of brown as an indicator of the level of pollution. At the top, the soil is darker and more contaminated; at the bottom, it transitions to a beige shade of undamaged soil. As temperatures have risen and the soil has weathered, the mud has now hardened and become impenetrable.
In the northern oil fields of Raudhatain and Umm al-Aish, the source of Kuwait's only two freshwater aquifers, visible crusts of dried-up oil lakes cover the foul ground. According to Almutairi, although windblown sand has covered parts of the oil lakes in the north and southeast, their number has multiplied over the years and the harmful chemicals remain still in the soil today.
“Had Kuwait decided to treat this contamination in 1993 or 1994, it would have been so easy. But after 30 years, you are not dealing with the crude oil that existed at that time,” he said. “It’s a very big challenge.”
According to KISR, by June 2021, just 2.3 million cubic metres of the contaminated sands - almost 10% - had been successfully removed in a process known as remediation: about 1.7 million cubic metres in the north and 580,000 cubic metres in the southeast, where the Burgan oil fields are located. It is estimated that another 19 million cubic metres need to be cleared.
Some parts of the oil lakes are covered with sand, which complicates the cleaning.
The chemical elements and compounds in smoke from oil wells can be toxic, carcinogenic and otherwise hazardous to human health, and in relatively low concentrations can cause ecological and climatic disruption.
According to Wikipedia, 90% of all fires in Kuwait in 1991 were extinguished with seawater sprayed from strong hoses onto the source of the fire. The extinguishing water was delivered to the dry desert region by converting the oil pipelines that had pumped oil from the wells into the Arabian Gulf before the fire started.
But what happens to the contaminated soil?
Researchers and conservationists are deeply concerned about the dangers it poses to the ecosystem and human health.
Of greatest concern is exposure to petroleum hydrocarbons, a mixture of chemicals found in crude oil.
As the most common environmental pollutant, any introduction of petroleum hydrocarbons into an environment immediately degrades the functionality of the ecosystem. They are already altering soil conditions and causing high levels of plant and animal mortality, and they have also invaded aquifers in northern Kuwait that are used for irrigation, small-scale industry and distilled water.
Director of the Climate and Water Programme and Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute, plant life around the contaminated sites has not yet recovered. The exposure to petroleum hydrocarbons has affected plant growth and seed germination. In addition, their soil has been clogged by the oil and prevented from accessing light, water and nutrients.
“It’s a sort of byproduct of slanted priorities. People didn’t really buzz about this until they started to see plant life being impacted and physically seeing decay of the natural landscape,” he said.
According to Green Line, an environmental NGO in Kuwait, the wildlife in the area, which relies on desert vegetation, has noticeably decreased over the years. “We know that this is definitely one of the causes of the decline in wildlife here in Kuwait”, the organisation says.
“Although the ecosystem will someday recover”, says Sara Akbar, a petrochemical engineer and co-founder of Kuwait Energy, “many species and areas are still struggling to stay healthy 30 years later.”
What impact does this have on people?
And people in Kuwait have also suffered the health consequences. Akbar and a US veteran who was drafted during the Gulf War are among the many who suffered severe lung damage after inhaling the toxins from the smoke.
After the Gulf War, environmental surveys were conducted in the Gulf region to determine possible consequences for neurological behaviour.
The burning of oil wells in Kuwait in 1991 discharged a high volume of potentially toxic pollutants into the air. To determine whether there were health-related complaints associated with having lived and worked there, questionnaires were administered to 1599 soldiers after their return from a 3-month mission in Kuwait. Symptoms occurring before, during, and after the mission were queried. Compared with baseline, symptoms reported more frequently for the Kuwait period were eye and upper respiratory tract irritation, shortness of breath, cough, rashes, and fatigue. Symptoms were associated with reported proximity to oil fires, and their incidence generally decreased after the soldiers left Kuwait. Oil-fire smoke is one of several possible factors that may have contributed to the reporting of symptoms.”
Between March and November of 1991, approximately 9000 workers from 43 different countries battled the burning oil wells in Kuwait. To document the exposure of persons in Kuwait during the oil well fires to volatile organic compounds (VOCs), we obtained samples of blood from 14 U.S. personnel in Kuwait City in May of 1991 (group I) and 40 American firefighters working in the oil fields in October of 1991 (group II). Concentrations of VOCs in group I and group II were compared with those of a random sample of 114 persons in the United States (reference group). The median concentrations of VOCs in group I were equal to or lower than those in the reference group. We found significant differences between the median concentrations of several VOCs in group II and the reference group. Median levels of ethylbenzene were about 10 times higher among group II than among the reference group (0.53 microgram/l vs 0.052 microgram/l). Median levels of benzene, m-/p-xylene, o-xylene, styrene, and toluene among group II were more than double those of the reference group. Although firefighters had higher median concentrations of VOCs than the reference group, those American personnel in Kuwait not involved in fighting the oil fires had concentrations of VOCs comparable to those in the reference group. Blood VOC measurements indicate a significant increase in exposure to VOCs in firefighters, but do not demonstrate this in personnel in Kuwait City.”
A prospective study was undertaken to assess and monitor the effects of oil pollution in soldiers exposed in Kuwait in 1991 after Op Granby. One hundred and twenty five soldiers were monitored over a five month period by measurement of Forced Expiratory Volume (in one second) (FEV1) and Forced Vital Capacity (FVC). Although no demonstrable changes were observed, this study has gone some way to filling the gap in research in this environmentally sensitive field.”
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.
Background: Exposure to air pollution (both indoor and outdoor) has many potential adverse effects on human health.
This article looks at the adverse respiratory health effects of air pollution and gives some guidance about management of exposure in susceptible individuals.
Motor vehicle and industrial emissions are the primary contributors to outdoor air pollution in Australia. High levels of ozone and other pollutants can cause respiratory symptoms in susceptible individuals. Air quality advisory systems exist in most states. Clinicians can incorporate the health effects of air pollution, and awareness of advisory systems in the education of their susceptible patients and their carers. Asthma and chronic airways disease management plans should include provision for possible exposure to high pollution events and steps that can be taken to reduce exposure.”
Since the end of the 1991 Gulf War about 20,000 United States veterans and similar proportions of troops from other allied contingents have been affected by a variety of symptoms which have collectively become known as 'Gulf War Syndrome'. Similar symptoms have been reported in Iraqi civilians including children. Despite extensive investigations no agreement has been reached on whether there is an underlying cause or causes. In this article, the principal features of the illness are summarised and some of the proposed causes discussed. It is proposed that the common cause is the toxic smoke from incomplete combustion of oil from burning wells, and this hypothesis is related to the known toxicology of two likely combustion products, nitric oxide and carbon monoxide. The effect of this proposal on possible investigations and treatment is considered.”
However, as GWS affects approximately a quarter of subjects deployed, it is not very likely that all these symptoms are caused by a psychotraumatic reaction. Many veterans suffering from GWS have themselves rejected the diagnosis of PTSD, arguing that they do not suffer repetition nightmares. What the veterans rightly tell us here is that the notions of stress and trauma cannot strictly be superimposed. A subject may have been intensely stressed without ever establishing traumatic flashbacks and likewise; a psychological trauma can be experienced without stress and without fear but in a moment of terror. This clarification is in line with the first criterion of the DSM-IV-TR which necessarily integrates the objective and subjective dimensions as determinants of PTSD. Yet, scientific studies relating to GWS are struggling to establish opposition or continuity links between the objective external exposure (smoke from petrol wells, impoverished uranium, biological agents, chemicals) and the share of inner emotion albeit reactive and characterised by a subjective stress. There were no lack of stress factors for the troops deployed: repeated alerts of chemical attacks, hostility of the environment with its sandstorms and venomous animals, climatic conditions making long hours of backup and static observation difficult, collecting bodies, lack of knowledge of the precise geography of their movements and uncertainty of the duration of the conflict. The military anti-nuclear-bacteriological-chemical uniform admittedly provided protective confinement, shutting out the hostile world from which the threat would come but, at the same time, this isolation increases the fear of a hypothetical risk whilst the internal perceptions are increased and can open the way to future somatisations. In a context like this, the somatic manifestations of anxiety (palpitations, sweating, paresthesia…) are willingly associated with somatised functional disorders to which can also be assigned over-interpretations of bodily feelings according to a hypochondriacal mechanism. The selective attention to somatic perceptions in the absence of mentalisations, the request for reassurance reiterated and the excessive use of the treatment system will be diagnostic indices of these symptoms caused by the stress. Rather than toxic exposure to such and such a substance, the non-specific syndrome called "Gulf War Syndrome" is the result of exposure to the eponymous operational theatre. But if the psychological and psychosomatic suffering occurring in veterans is immutable throughout history, the expression of these difficulties has specificities according to the past cultural, political and scientific context. In the example of GWS, the diffusion of the fear of a pathology resulting from chemical weapons has promoted this phenomenon.
In the end, biochemical and biological weapons have not been used on a large scale but the mediatisation of this possibility has led to a deleterious… To spare the bother of a group psychological reflection, the scientific and political authorities chose to investigate the implication of environmental factors in the genesis of the disorder. At individual as well as social level, rather than accept a psychogenic origin, a common defence mechanism is to assign the suffering to an external cause.
With the perspective of preventing the risk of diffusion of other unexplained syndromes, which could occur following future armed conflicts, new epidemiological diagnostic models must be defined. The media also has considerable responsibility for the diffusion of epidemic psychological reactions but at the same time, they can inform the population about certain individual or group psychopathological mechanisms.
Conclusion: The GWS exists: it is not an "imaginary illness" but a serious public health issue which has led to tens of thousands of complaints and swallowed up millions of dollars. To reply to human suffering, a new nosographic entity can spread through society taking the epidemic expression of a somatised disorder via identification, imitation and suggestion mechanisms. This possibility questions not only mental health but also the sociology and politics. It is necessary to inform the leaders and the general population of the possibility of this type of mass reaction, which can take the shape of a highly contagious complex functional syndrome.”
The ECOREFINE technology is a process for purifying soils contaminated with pollutants or other materials (e.g. mill scale sludge) in ‘on-site operation’. This purpose-built system can be operated both mobile and stationary.
The new procedure is founded on vacuum evaporation and enables time-saving and rapid decontamination without the use of any additives.
As early as 1997, initial conversations were held between the inventor of the Ecorefine Norbert Stegmann and a waste management company based in Kuwait, who were enthusiastic about the technology and functioning of the Ecorefine. Unfortunately, a cooperation never happened...
Norbert Stegmann, Founder of the Blue Building Environmental Organisation and Inventor
of the Ecorefine, in conversations in Kuwait with local partners in 1997
There is no more time to waste!
For more information on the Ecorefine, please click below.