- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2003

Hundreds of residents of Sardasht a city of 12,000 in northwestern Iran still battle breathing problems as a result of exposure to Iraqi sulfur mustard warheads more than 15 years ago, according to a new report by Iranian researchers published in a U.S. medical journal.
The researchers examined the immediate as well as the long-term effects of an Iraqi chemical attack on a small town in Iran in July 1987, when the two nations were at war.
The report, which appeared this week in the Journal of Burns, an online publication, comes as the United States prepares to go to war with Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein and all chemical and biological weapons in his country's possession, as well as any nuclear weapons it may be developing.
There are concerns that the Iraqi dictator, who also led his country during its conflict with Iran in the 1980s, might use chemical agents or other weapons of mass destruction to retaliate in the event of a U.S.-led strike.
Dr. Stephen Milner, editor of the journal, said in a telephone interview that there were several reasons for publishing the peer-reviewed study, which can be found online at www.journalofburns.com.
"We're trying to publish articles that are relevant," said Dr. Milner, given that war with Iraq appears to be inching closer.
In addition, "This was the first time since World War I that there had been a long-term study of the effects of mustard gas. So this study is very significant," said Dr. Milner, who also is an associate professor of medicine at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.
The Iran study, conducted by four researchers at the Baqiyatallah Medical Science University in Tehran, is titled: "Public Health Status of the Civil Population of Sardasht 15 Years Following Large-Scale Wartime Exposure to Sulfur Mustard."
The researchers say sulfur mustard (SM) is a "chemical weapon which has been employed with devastating results against both military and civilian targets, most recently by Iraqi forces in campaigns against their own civilian population."
They describe SM as a compound that can harm cells even at low exposure levels. They say the genetic damage it can inflict, in the form of mutations and chromosomal alterations, has been demonstrated in an insect study, and that "substantial carcinogenic potential [has been] revealed by animal studies."
They say SM was used by Iraq in its aerial attack on Sardasht. "Four 250 kg bombs [each 551 pounds] with sulfur mustard warheads [released by MiG fighter-bombers] impacted in the city center causing numerous deaths and long-term chronic illnesses among survivors," they said.
An estimated 4,500 people more than a third of the city's population was exposed to the toxic chemical.
Volunteers and local medical teams initiated rescue efforts as soon as the attack ended.
"Unfortunately, the emergency medical response had been under way approximately two hours prior to the decontamination of the area by the Iranian military. Hence, many of the rescuers also sustained SM exposure," the researchers revealed.
They said their study examined incidences of disease and mortality rates "among a representative cross-section of mustard-exposed subjects, including 355 survivors and 108 deceased individuals."
Records confirming level of exposure and medical complications of survivors were available for 735 survivors, but only 355 participated in the study.
Of the 108 exposed victims who died, 93 died in the first month of exposure, they said. "The majority of victims succumbed during the first two weeks, with some residual deaths during the next 13 years," the authors wrote.
They said all deaths in the first two weeks after exposure were from "respiratory failure caused by the pulmonary effects of sulfur mustard and [blood infection] secondary to infections resulting from chemical injury to lungs and other tissues."
Among the 355 survivors who participated, pulmonary impairment was the "most common complication," the research paper said. All survivors had long-term respiratory problems: 75 percent had mild, 15 percent had moderate and 10 percent had severe respiratory illnesses, according to the report.
The researchers said studies of U.S. servicemen exposed to mustard gas during World War I also found that respiratory disorders were the most common chronic health problem among survivors. Difficulties included shortness of breath, coughing, chest tightness and bronchitis.
But Dr. Milner, also director of the regional burn unit in Southern Illinois, Missouri and Kentucky, also noted that mustard gas can do severe damage to the skin and eyes. He said that the researchers intend to focus on those problems in a follow-up report.

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