Iraq war veteran Andy Tosh gestures towards his nose, indicating where he received treatment for skin cancer, and displays the red marks on his hand. His health has been irreparably harmed, he asserts, not by the scorching heat of the Iraqi desert, but by exposure to a hazardous chemical at the industrial site he was tasked to protect.

“It’s evident that British troops were deliberately put at risk,” the 58-year-old former RAF sergeant asserts. It can be disclosed that close to 100 British soldiers may have encountered sodium dichromate while safeguarding the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant in 2003. Ten British veterans who were stationed at the plant have now come forward to share their harrowing experiences, expressing a sense of betrayal by the UK government after grappling with a spectrum of health issues, including daily nosebleeds, a brain tumour, and three cancer diagnoses. Labelled as a “lethal toxin”, sodium dichromate is a recognised carcinogen. According to the former servicemen, the ground at Qarmat Ali was saturated with it.

The Ministry of Defence has expressed willingness to engage with the veterans to chart a way forward. However, the former soldiers demand transparency and accountability. Lord Richard Dannatt, former chief of the UK general staff, has called for a thorough investigation into the matter. He stated, “If the health of these service personnel has been compromised, then there appears to be a case for providing medical assistance, if not compensation.”

‘It resembled a salvage yard’

During the initial stages of the Iraq war, approximately 88 British troops were deployed to Qarmat Ali, tasked with providing round-the-clock security. Situated near Basra, Qarmat Ali was constructed in the 1970s to facilitate water distribution for flushing out oil in the vicinity. Clad in heavy combat attire, British soldiers endured blistering 50°C temperatures during the day and braved insurgent rocket attacks at night while patrolling the industrial complex. Unbeknownst to them, the premises were contaminated with sodium dichromate, a chemical employed to inhibit corrosion.

Before the US assumed control, sodium dichromate was utilised in filtering and treating water to prolong the lifespan of pipelines and equipment. This particular compound is a variant of hexavalent chromium, a class of substances that gained notoriety through the 2000 film “Erin Brockovich”, which depicted water contamination in a Californian town. Soldiers recounted how thousands of bags of orange powder were stored in an open-roofed building, with some bags torn open, exposing their contents to the elements. Others were scattered throughout the facility. But why were British soldiers deployed there in the first place?

Qarmat Ali was deemed vital for revitalising Iraq’s oil production post-Saddam Hussein’s regime, and the US government contracted KBR to oversee operations. US troops escorted KBR personnel to Qarmat Ali on daily excursions, where they worked under the protection of British RAF forces. “It was reminiscent of a salvage yard,” remarked Jim Garth, a former corporal who served in Northern Ireland before deployment to Iraq. Amidst the chaos of the invasion, significant portions of the site had been plundered for metal, with leaking chlorine gas canisters strewn about.

However, the ailments experienced by UK troops stationed there, such as nosebleeds, rashes, and lesions, could not be readily explained, according to the former servicemen, as well as among US soldiers who visited the site. “I noticed a rash on my forearms,” recounted Mr Tosh. “I’ve operated in other hot tropical regions, but I’ve never encountered a rash like that before.” “Other members of our team exhibited different symptoms, but at the time, we were clueless as to the cause,” he added. It remained an enigma until August 2003, when two individuals clad in hazmat suits and respirator masks arrived, erecting a sign adorned with a skull and crossbones.

The sign read: “Warning. Chemical hazard. Full protective equipment and a chemical respirator are required. Sodium dichromate exposure.” “We were taken aback,” Mr Tosh recalled. “We had already spent months on that site, being exposed.” “It introduced a different kind of threat that none of us comprehended,” he continued. Furthermore, according to Mr Garth, the yellow-orange powder wasn’t confined to the ground but was also dispersed by the wind. “So unbeknownst to us, it enveloped us constantly,” he added.

A probe by the US Department of Defense concluded that both military personnel and civilians had been “inadvertently exposed” to toxic substances. The report also apportioned blame to KBR for delaying the recognition and response to the hazard posed by sodium dichromate. It stated that KBR became aware of the chemical’s usage at Qarmat Ali as early as 31st May 2003 when reviewing an Iraqi operational manual detailing its application at the facility. According to the report, both KBR and Task Force Restore Iraqi Oil, responsible for reinstating Iraqi oil production, acknowledged in June 2003 the potential contamination of the site with sodium dichromate, recognising its carcinogenic properties.

US commander’s demise linked to sodium dichromate

The plight of US troops exposed to sodium dichromate at Qarmat Ali is more extensively documented than that of their British counterparts. National Guardsmen who visited the site fell ill, prompting an official inquiry and governmental assistance for veterans across the Atlantic. “During my time at Qarmat Ali, I began experiencing severe nosebleeds,” recounted Russell Powell, an American former medic, during a Senate inquiry. Within three days of arriving at the plant in April 2003, he developed rashes on his knuckles, hands, and forearms, he disclosed. Similar symptoms afflicted others in his platoon, he added.

Mr Powell stated that he had queried a KBR employee about the powder, who reassured him not to be concerned, citing directives from his supervisors. Speaking at a 2009 hearing held as part of the inquiry, Mr Powell added, “My symptoms have persisted since my service in Iraq… I struggle to take a full breath.” Lieutenant-Colonel James Gentry, of the Indiana National Guard, served at Qarmat Ali in 2003. In a deposition video, his countenance paled as he struggled to breathe, he asserted, “They possessed this information and chose not to divulge it,” referring to KBR contractors.

“I’m facing death now because of it.” Lt Col Gentry succumbed to cancer in 2009. The US Army deemed his demise “in line of duty for exposure to sodium dichromate,” according to court documents. Court proceedings against KBR overturned In a widely publicised legal battle, 12 US servicemen were granted $85 million (£66.4 million) following a jury’s determination that KBR had failed to safeguard them from carcinogenic chemicals. Each soldier received $7.1 million for KBR’s “reckless and flagrant disregard” for their well-being in the trial held in Oregon. However, KBR successfully appealed the case, contending that the Oregon court lacked jurisdiction and seeking its transfer to Texas.

Ultimately, an appeals court ruled in favour of KBR, affirming a prior decision that the Qarmat Ali veterans had not furnished adequate evidence linking their health issues to sodium dichromate. ‘My nose just began to gush blood’ In the UK, Qarmat Ali veterans lament the absence of sustained support and governmental silence. They feel abandoned and fear the potential onset of cancer as a consequence of their exposure two decades ago. Mr Tosh, who retired from the RAF in 2006 after nearly 24 years of service, recounts battling skin cancer on his nose and marks on his right hand.

“That’s the hand I used to wield my weapon, potentially exposing it to more dust or toxic chemicals,” he conveyed from his residence in Lincoln, where he resides with his spouse. Fellow veteran Tim Harrison notes a deterioration in nosebleeds in recent years, which he attributes to sodium dichromate exposure. Currently employed as a paramedic and residing in Doncaster. “Last year, while at work, my nose suddenly began to bleed profusely.” “I couldn’t stem it for two to three hours, necessitating admission to A&E and an overnight stay,” he disclosed. Since then, Mr Harrison has endured daily nosebleeds and skin lesions on his legs.

“What will occur in a decade? What else lies ahead?” he ponders. Mr Garth has grappled with skin cancer, including a lesion on his neck and spots on his head, areas less likely to be shielded by his combat gear in the sweltering heat. Another Qarmat Ali veteran, Craig Warner, received a medical discharge from the RAF upon being diagnosed with a brain tumour, a condition attributed by his surgeon to chemical exposure. Other veterans, such as Eric Page treated for testicular cancer that had metastasised to his stomach lymph nodes and severe headaches; Ben Evans, who underwent cauterisation to stem nosebleeds; Tony Watters, whose arms itch incessantly until they bleed; Andrew Day, beset by frequent nosebleeds and arm lesions; and Darren Waters, afflicted by a shin rash, report enduring long-term health complications following exposure at Qarmat Ali.

And they’re not alone among their squadron in experiencing ill-health, they assert. Two others are reported to have perished, although confirmation of their deaths being linked to Qarmat Ali-related health issues is pending. Only one of the Qarmat Ali veterans remains symptom-free, yet he too harbours concerns about future implications. According to the veterans, some who served there may still be oblivious to the extent of their exposure. What does science say about sodium dichromate? A 2019 analysis of extant studies concluded that hexavalent chromium (inclusive of sodium dichromate) may trigger cancers of the respiratory system, oral cavity, prostate, and stomach in humans.

It also correlates with heightened overall mortality rates due to various cancers. During the Senate inquiry, epidemiologist Herman Gibb affirmed that symptoms reported by soldiers during their tenure at the site aligned with significant sodium dichromate exposure. He posited that chromium might provoke persistent symptoms post-exposure due to its highly irritant nature. When questioned, regarding veterans’ development of skin cancers years later, Dr Gibb opined that sun exposure was more probable as the causative factor rather than the chemical.

Nonetheless, he conceded that chromium-induced skin damage exacerbated by sunlight could culminate in tumour formation, albeit necessitating further investigation. UK veterans demand answers and an apology Having been discharged from military service and two decades removed from their Qarmat Ali deployment, the British veterans clamour for the Ministry of Defence to assume responsibility. “Is this a cover-up? I’m loath to entertain the notion, but the evidence suggests otherwise,” Mr Garth muses.

Mr Tosh concurs, “I dread to contemplate the number of individuals who are ailing or may have passed away since.” They advocate for a public inquiry into the events and for the Ministry of Defence to ensure comprehensive outreach to all Qarmat Ali veterans, offering ongoing medical assistance. “We should never have been deployed there in the first instance. Yet, even after the warning signs emerged, why were we compelled to remain?” Mr Tosh questions. “Because we were dispensable. The site’s oil extraction was deemed more significant than our lives.” In response to inquiries, the Ministry of Defence asserted, “We acknowledge the dedication of our personnel, and all operations incorporate health and safety protocols to mitigate risks.

“Upon being alerted to potential sodium dichromate exposure, an environmental assessment was conducted to gauge typical exposure levels at Qarmat Ali. Results indicated levels significantly below UK government safety thresholds. “Any personnel requiring medical treatment can access it through the Defence Medical Services and other appropriate channels. “Veterans who believe their health has been compromised due to service are eligible to seek no-fault compensation under the War Pensions Scheme.” In a statement, KBR stated, “The company operated under the direction of the US Army amidst the extreme and ever-evolving conditions of wartime Iraq.

“KBR adhered to the war zone chain of command. Upon discovering sodium dichromate at the facility, KBR promptly, reasonably, and repeatedly notified the US Army and took swift corrective action. All allegations against KBR were dismissed by US courts. “KBR takes pride in supporting US and Allied forces, serving these nations with integrity and distinction.”

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