WASHINGTON - The West Virginia National Guard is trying to track down 130 reservists who were probably exposed to a cancer-causing chemical in 2003 while guarding a water facility in southern Iraq.
The move follows similar efforts by the Indiana and Oregon National Guards, whose soldiers were also believed to have been exposed to sodium dichromate. The soldiers were guarding civilians who were repairing the Qarmat Ali plant under the supervision of Houston-based defense contractor KBR.
Hundreds of soldiers and civilians are believed to have worked near the chemical, which is used to prevent pipes from rusting but which also greatly increases the risk of cancer and other health problems.
The Pentagon and KBR were aware in 2003 that the chemical was piled around the looted facility, and took blood samples from some soldiers and civilians in Iraq to try to determine their level of exposure.
But six years later, little effort has been made to systematically alert all those who worked at the plant.
"They knew back in 2003 that this stuff was dangerous and they told us it wasn't," said one former West Virginia reservist who asked that his name not be used because he feared it would be detrimental to his military career.
He said battalion medics questioned a group of West Virginia soldiers in August 2003 to ask whether they had come into contact with the orange dust, but they never told him what it was and never tested him.
"They asked us if we had seen this stuff, breathed it, gotten it on our clothes or our bodies," he said, adding that KBR officials on site told him it was only slightly more dangerous than baby powder.
Russell Kimberling who now works for a pharmaceutical company in Louisville, Ky., had been guarding the plant for more than two months when his superiors asked him to escort senior KBR officials there because there were rumors of an orange chemical on the ground that they wanted to see.
He said he got out of his vehicle at the site, kicked the dirt, stirring an orange cloud, and said, "This is what you are talking about."
But when Kimberling, dressed in battle fatigues, turned around, he was stunned to see that the KBR officials who were getting out of their vehicles were all dressed in full chemical suits.
"I knew that there was an issue when they sought to protect themselves and didn't bother to tell us on the way out there, 'You might want to have chemical masks and suits,' " said Kimberling, who intends to join a group of soldiers who are suing KBR.
In the fall of 2003, the military arranged comprehensive medical examinations for 137 soldiers who were stationed at the plant, including blood and urine tests, according to congressional testimony by Michael Kilpatrick, deputy director of the Deployment Health Support Directorate of the Defense Department, who reported that "no specific abnormalities" were found.
But since that time, several former soldiers have complained of rashes and nosebleeds. Two Indiana guardsmen have developed cancer, although it is unclear whether the chemical played a role.
Sodium dichromate is the same substance that poisoned residents in Hinkley, Calif., an incident made famous by the movie "Erin Brockovich." Specialists say that even short-term exposure can increase the risk of cancer, depress the immune system, and cause other problems.
Kimberling said he was airlifted out of Iraq to repair a hole in the cartilage of his nose - a common symptom of sodium dichromate exposure - and that he now suffers from frequent sinus headaches and unexplained spots on his skin.
The West Virginia soldier who asked not to be identified said he has frequent bloody noses and tumor-like knots in his thyroid glands. He said he saw a doctor, but a battery of tests did not turn up any cause. He realized only in recent weeks, after receiving a letter from the West Virginia National Guard, that he had been exposed to a substance that could have triggered the problems, he said.
In February, the West Virginia National Guard began tracking down the soldiers who spent time at Qarmat Ali to tell them to get a health assessment.
"We feel, since the issue has been raised, that it is important enough to contact the soldiers and advise them of what they need to do to get checked out," said Michael Cadle, a spokesman for the West Virginia Guard.
There is no effective way to undo the health risks caused by exposure, specialists say, but records can be kept in soldiers' medical files so that if health problems arise, they might be covered as service-related.
The National Guards of the three states became aware of the exposure in recent months after a Globe article on a lawsuit filed against KBR by civilians workers sparked a congressional hearing and demands for an investigation by Senator Evan Bayh, Democrat of Indiana. In response to Bayh's request, the military reviewed files from Qarmat Ali and concluded in December that the level of exposure was "well below the levels that would cause concern."
But the report acknowledged that "there is a possibility of a higher exposure that was not detected in the evaluations." An expert witness in the civilian lawsuit, who also worked on the Erin Brockovich case, asserts that the blood tests were not done in a way that could have accurately measured exposure.
Bayh has challenged the military's conclusions and vowed to set up an Agent Orange-style registration for soldiers who had been exposed to the chemical.