In 1991, Saddam Hussein’s troops set at least 700 Kuwaiti oil fields alight, as they retreated from Kuwait during the First Gulf War. The oil fields burned for about eight months, and took twenty-eight international fire-fighting teams and $1 billion to extinguish.
According to estimates, the fires created losses of at least $22 billion. They resulted in damage to physical infrastructure, like pipelines and wellheads, wasted oil, and environmental destruction.
Such losses were not the sole effects of the oil fields’ conflagration. The disaster also negatively impacted the physical health of a wide range of people, including troops, fire-fighters, and civilians.
When oilfields burn, they release pollutants like sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and lead. These pollutants adversely affect human health and are particularly damaging to those who are already suffering from respiratory illnesses.
A number of studies have documented the health effects of the burning Kuwaiti oilfields. One study reported that U.S. soldiers stationed in Kuwait frequently reported coughs and shortness of breath, but that these symptoms subsided after their departure. According to data from Kuwait’s Ministry of Health, Kuwaiti citizens were also impacted by the oilfields fires, with “upper respiratory tract symptoms increas[ing] … and then decreas[ing] … This trend coincided with the increase of extinguished fires.”
For those exposed to the oil fires for only a short while, evidence suggests the event did not permanently affect their health in a negative way. Exposure over a long time period, however, may have more serious consequences, such as cancer. Unfortunately, studies on the long-term effects of exposure have not yet been conducted, which means the health consequences of “one of the world’s greatest environmental and economic catastrophes” are not fully known.