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Witnesses link chemical to ill US soldiers

Farah Stockman / Boston Globe | June 23, 2008

US soldiers assigned to guard a crucial part of Iraq's oil infrastructure became ill after exposure to a highly toxic chemical at the plant, witnesses testified at a Democratic Policy Committee hearing yesterday on Capitol Hill.

"These soldiers were bleeding from the nose, spitting blood," said Danny Langford, an equipment technician from Texas brought to work at the Qarmat Ali Water treatment plant in 2003. "They were sick."

"Hundreds of American soldiers at this site were contaminated" while guarding the plant, Langford said, including members of the Indiana National Guard.

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Langford is one of nine Americans who accuse KBR, the lead contractor on the Qarmat Ali project and one of the largest defense contractors in Iraq, of knowingly exposing them to sodium dichromate, an orange, sandlike chemical that is a potentially lethal carcinogen. Specialists say even short-term exposure to the chemical can cause cancer, depress an individual's immune system, attack the liver, and cause other ailments.

Yesterday's hearing - one among several organized to hold contractors accountable for alleged malfeasance in Iraq - was chaired by Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat. "Hundreds of US troops, who may not even know of their exposure to sodium dichromate that could one day result in a horrible disease, cancers, and death," he said.

Roughly 250 American soldiers were believed to have come in contact with the chemical, according to Defense Department documents. Sodium dichromate is the same substance that poisoned residents in Hinkley, Calif., an incident made famous by the movie "Erin Brockovich" in 2000.

In Iraq, the chemical was used as an antirust coating for pipes that supply water to the oil fields. After the 2003 US-led invasion, looters raided the Qarmat Ali facility; afterward, the chemical was found strewn around the facility and its grounds.

Langford and his former colleagues have said KBR supervisors initially told them the chemical was a "mild irritant." The company, however, eventually acknowledged that sodium dichromate was a potentially deadly substance and moved to clean up the site.

KBR has denied any wrongdoing in the matter. The company has insisted the safety of its workers and the troops they work with are its "highest priority."

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