The Hidden Enemy
Scott Swan/Eyewitness News
Dubois, IN - The Indiana National Guard says two soldiers exposed to a deadly chemical in Iraq now have cancer. The Guard is trying to contact more than 600 soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 152nd Infantry who may have been exposed to sodium dichromate.
"The Battalion Cdr (commander) was diagnosed with cancer last summer and there is another soldier who came home on leave from this deployment who has been diagnosed with rectal cancer," LTC Deedra Thombleson wrote in an email to Channel 13.
A third soldier, Sergeant First Class David Moore, died in 2008 from a mysterious illness after returning from Iraq.
Moore's daughter, 10-year-old Rylee Weisheit, squeezes a teddy bear on the front porch of a home in Dubois, Indiana. The bear has a t-shirt with her dad's picture. When she squeezes the arm, the voice of her father can be heard.
"Hi, my little sweetheart. I love you. Sleep tight and have sweet dreams. Daddy misses and loves you very much."
The voice is David Moore. The teddy bear was a gift to his daughter before he died. Moore was a platoon leader and a 20-year-veteran of the guard.
"He was over there helping little boys and girls," the girl says of her father.
Rylee's mother says Moore returned from Iraq in 2004 and got sick with a variety of symptoms.
"The wheezing, the unable to breathe, the coughing," says Audrey Weisheit.
David Moore went from doctor to doctor but his health got progressively worse. Moore died in February of 2008. The death is puzzling to Moore's family, including his brother.
"We still don't know what happened. No doctor can tell us. Why he got sick or nothing," says Steve Moore.
Moore's mother wipes away tears while looking at family pictures on a table.
"He was too young to die," says Leona Moore.
David Moore's death certificate reads chronic interstitial lung disease. But Moore's family still considers it a mystery. However, there is a man in rural Arkansas who believes he has solved the issue. 71-year-old Ed Blacke spent several months in Iraq working alongside the Indiana National Guard soldiers. He thinks the answer to Moore's death might be written on a tank at the Qarmat Ali Water Treatment Plant in Iraq. Blacke has pictures on his home computer and points to the words on one tank.
"That says very plainly Sodium Dichromate. A day's exposure could write you a death warrant. Just one day's exposure," says Blacke.
Blacke was the Health, Safety and Environmental Coordinator at the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant near Basra, Iraq. Blacke arrived in June of 2003 and remained through the middle of August 2003. His Houston-based company, Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR) was contracted to rebuild the facility after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and toppled Saddam's regime. The soldiers guarding the plant were from Indiana. Blacke says he was warned about grenades in the equipment.
"The area was heavily booby-trapped," says Blacke.
But Blacke says he was not told another enemy was hiding - a chemical that can cause cancer.
"The very subtle sabotage was the chemicals that we were not aware of," says Blacke.
The former KBR worker says his Iraqi interpreter told him the Iraqi Baath party sabotaged the facility prior to the U.S. invasion by opening bags of sodium dichromate and spreading the chemical around the plant. The chemical had been used at the plant to prevent rust and fungus in the pipes. But the chemical is dangerous.
Dr. Max Costa is the professor and chairman at the Department of Environmental Medicine at New York University School of Medicine. At NYU, Dr. Costa is in charge of a large department that conducts research and instruction on how chemical and physical agents in the environment injure humans. His area of expertise is heavy metals, such as hexavalent chromium which is present in sodium dichromate. He studies how these agents cause cancer in humans. He served as an expert witness in the Erin Brockovich case and is known as one of the nation's leading experts on sodium dichromate.
"It's one of the most potent carcinogens known to man," says Dr. Costa.
Back in Arkansas, Blacke looks at another picture that he took while working at the Iraqi plant.
"That is another one of the drainage ditches, and you can see it's just full of sodium dichromate solution by the coloring. The chemical was quite obvious. The broken bags were obvious. The chemical mixed in with water in the drainage ditch was obvious," says Blacke.
Blacke described the chemical he saw at the plant.
"It was like a course, granular sand. Orange, reddish in color," says Blacke.
Blacke says when many of the soldiers and workers began having nose bleeds and difficulty breathing, he sounded the alarm bells.
"When I saw the medical symptoms and signs increasing in the fellas, that's when I looked, did the research, brought it up to my management, and my management told me I was being a troublemaker," says Blacke. "When the issues came up, it was denial and intimidation to keep it quiet. And people were getting hurt," added Blacke. "They (KBR) told the men that they had looked at it, it was a mild irritant. That we were making a lot to do about nothing. A mountain out of a mole hill."
"Judging from their symptoms, the nasal bleeding, the nasal symptoms, those are all pretty good signs of hexavalent chromium exposure," says Dr. Costa. "I would say they had a pretty severe exposure over several months that they worked there," added Dr. Costa.
Ed Blacke claims KBR knew sodium dichromate was at the plant.
"They knew about this in May," says Blacke. "Everything seemed to be focused on we made a commitment, we're going to get this done, we're going to get it done in this time frame, hell or high water, we're gonna get it done," added Blacke. "They (KBR) just had an attitude - they were focused on that finish line and they didn't care how they got there."
KBR spokeswoman Heather Browne released a statement saying, "KBR's commitment to the safety and security of all employees, the troops and those we serve, is the company's top priority. The company takes issue with the assertion that KBR knowingly harmed troops and was responsible for an unsafe condition. That is simply untrue. Further the company in no way condones any action that would compromise the safety of those we serve. KBR has fully cooperated with the government on this issue and provided information requested of us."
The "Erin Brockovich" movie is where most people learned about sodium dichromate. People in that case became sick after drinking the chemical in water. In Iraq the exposure was different.
"They were standing out in it, patrolling in it, working in it," Blacke says of the Indiana National Guard members. "The poor soldiers, they were outside a lot of the times. I'd say 90 percent of the time, they were outside."
Blacke says the soldiers were outside for hours over the course of several weeks, even during windstorms when the chemical was getting blown around.
"It got into our clothing, it was on our skin," says Blacke. "We had no benches, no tables. We sat on the ground, so we were sitting in it. It was there. So, you couldn't help but inhale it and ingest it," added Blacke. "The environment we were required to take our meals in, to work in, it was just saturated with sodium dichromate."
Blacke says KBR was negligent by not giving the Indiana National Guard soldiers protective gear.
"I'd say grossly negligent," says Blacke. "It would have been so simple just to say, we made a mistake, we didn't realize this was here. Here's what we're going to do."
Blacke went one step further when testifying before the U.S. Senate Democratic Policy committee investigating the issue. The committee submits information to the defense department, state department and other agencies.
"I do feel it was criminally negligent of KBR to make a decision to continue to expose my colleagues to sodium dichromate poisoning at Qarmat Ali water treatment plant, particularly when they knew the exposure, they knew of the absence of any personal protective gear whatsoever," Blacke told the committee. "
Blacke testified that people took air and soil samples of the plant.
"The soil samples showed extremely high levels of sodium dichromate," says Blacke. "The air samples showed very low levels. Now, this is misleading because they were taken in no wind conditions. We often had high winds," added Blacke. "KBR management focused on the air samples in an attempt to continue operations at the plant without personal protective equipment and without the contamination being cleaned up."
"The effects of the chemical are long lasting and potentially deadly," says committee chairman Senator Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota). "Hundreds of U.S. troops may not even know of their exposure to sodium dichromate that could one day result in a horrible disease, cancers and death," added Senator Dorgan. "Rather than accepting responsibility, the Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR) Corporation is seeking in an aggressive way to escape accountability for its actions," said Senator Dorgan.
The Senate committee produced an internal document from a KBR meeting that took place in Kuwait City in August of 2003. In the memo, KBR wrote "serious problem at water treatment plant with a chemical called sodium dichromate...the problem seems worse than considered.. almost 60% of the people now exhibit the symptoms."
"The chemical has been on the ground since day one...wind is blowing the chemical that is lying on the ground...people are potentially exposed to something that may be very dangerous," according to the internal report assessment.
"If you had a site that was assessed by the United Nations beforehand and the UN assessed this site, found sodium dichromate, the corporation sends its workers there, U.S. soldiers are there to provide security, British soldiers are there to provide security, Iraqi workers are there, the wind is blowing, you've got this orange chemical - this deadly chemical flying around - you've got the company itself saying 60% of the employees exhibiting these symptoms, and these are symptoms of a deadly problem, why would the company not have said 'wait a second, this has to stop,'" says Senator Dorgan.
"When you see something like that, you shouldn't let people continue to go to work there," says Dr. Costa. "You should shut it down and remediate it, cover with rocks and plastic and prevent human exposure."
Dr. Costa says sodium dichromate causes cancer, other diseases and infections. I asked Dr. Costa if it is possible or even likely that David Moore's chronic interstitial lung disease was triggered by exposure to sodium dichromate.
"If he got into an area with high concentrations and he was outside a lot and breathed very small particles of it, it's possible it could have caused this," says Dr. Costa.
The Indiana National Guard confirmed that Sgt. First Classic David Moore visited the Qarmat Ali Water Treatment Plant twice and spent four to five hours at the site.
Blacke described the impact of sodium dichromate. "The joker in the deck is you. What's your genetic background? What is your weaknesses? If you have weaknesses in lungs normally, it's going to take you down very hard."
Blacke testified before the Senate committee that he has entered the chronic phase of sodium dichromate poisoning, including failure of his thyroid function.
Indiana Senator Evan Bayh called on the US Army to investigate. According to Bayh, Army Secretary Pete Geren agreed to launch" a 60-day senior-level Army Review Panel to evaluate the steps taken to identify, inform and treat members" exposed to the sodium dichromate.
"If a company - because they wanted to make a quick buck, intentionally exposed Indiana Guardsmen and women to a cancer-causing chemical, if that's proven, they ought to go to jail," says Senator Bayh. (Watch a longer interview with Bayh.)
Bayh is proposing legislation that would create a registry for soldiers exposed to dangerous chemicals, giving them access to best medical care. Bayh said he is thinking of David Moore's family, especially Moore's daughter Rylee.
"You can't bring her daddy back. But what we can do is make sure that this never happens to anybody else and that Dave Moore didn't lose his life in vein. It should never have happened in the first place. But at least he can serve to save others from suffering a similar fate," says Bayh.
"These 139 guys, that was their mission. And they were just doing their job," says Maj. Gen. R. Martin Umbarger of the Indiana National Guard which held town hall meetings and wrote letters in an effort to notify 656 soldiers in the battalion about the exposure and have them tested. As of this writing, the Guard is still trying to contact 46 soldiers. Umbarger wants those soldiers to call 1-800-237-2850 ext. 3128. (Watch a longer interview with Umbarger.)
"We owe every one who laid down their lives and willing to serve - and volunteered to serve for us - that we medically take care of them if there is a problem with their health," says Umbarger.
Texas resident Danny Langford is a former KBR employee who worked at the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant in 2003 where he repaired pumps. Langford told the U.S. Senate Democratic Policy committee much of the plant was covered with orange dust.
"It was everywhere," testified Langford.
Langford said he began having a bad sore throat, a hacking cough and irritated eyes.
"I had nose bleeds and began spitting blood," says Langford.
"It was everywhere," says Langford. "We had no breathing mask or any other type of personal protective equipment that would have kept this stuff out of our nose, throats, lungs or off any part of our bodies," added Langford. "During the initial two-week period, at the end of every working day, my boots, my pants, my clothing, were caked with this orange colored material."
Langford said in late July of 2003, two KBR supervisors held a meeting to talk about the concerns.
"At that meeting, these men told us the plant was safe, that this plant had been checked out and it was ok for us to go back to work," Langford testified. "When asked specifically about chromium contamination, they said 'at most, it was a mild irritant and the exposure would not pose any serious health risk.'"
Langford testified he continued working at the plant.
"KBR kept insisting that nothing on this jobsite was harmful, keep on working," says Langford. "In mid-August, we were sent to Kuwait to give blood so we could test for chromium and other heavy metals," added Langford. "Within a week or two after they drew our blood, KBR called us back to Kuwait and said they were shutting the plant down to clean it up," Lanford told the Senate committee.
Langford said the blood tests showed high levels of chromium and other heavy metals.
Dr. Costa questions the testing method.
"There are two forms of chromium. The trivalent form which is not that dangerous and the hexavalent form," Dr. Costa explained to the U.S. Senate Democratic Policy Committee. "And the problem is we have a lot of trivalent in our blood, but only in our red blood cell do we have the hexavalent form. So, the proper test for hexavalent chromium exposure is to take out the red blood cell and measure it in the red blood cell," added Dr. Costa. "There are not many labs that do that type of thing and I doubt this was done in their case," says Dr. Costa.
"KBR said after they got the plant cleaned up, we would not be forced to go back to the job site, that we could be placed in other positions in Iraq," says Langford.
"I was in good health when I went to work for KBR in Iraq," says Langford. "I had extremely high elevated blood pressure and high levels of chromium in my blood after working at the plant for three months."
Langford said he suffered short-term memory loss, severe sinus, congestion problems and a chronic cough.
"It was wrong KBR exposed us to a poisonous contaminant such as sodium dichromate," Langford testified.
David Moore's daughter and family are grieving and questioning. Was there an enemy in Iraq David was not armed to fight?
"She wants answers. She wants to know why her daddy's not here," says Audrey Weisheit. "He went over a very healthy man and he came back very sick," added Weisheit.
"Rylee was granted benefits from the VA and Dave's death has been ruled service related," wrote Weisheit in an email to Channel 13.
Blacke is haunted by what happened in Iraq. He believes exposure to sodium dichromate may kill him. He feels badly for the Indiana National Guard soldiers.
"They were led down a primrose path. Those men were my duty to protect," says Blacke. "I was a steward for those folks and I missed it."
Asked what he would tell the guard members exposed to sodium dichromate, Blacke responded this way. "Don't go out buying a gravestone. Some of them will be very ill. Some could die."
The Indiana National Guard has a number for soldiers exposed to sodium dichromate. Call 1-800-237-2850 ext. 3128.
December 2009 update: