Sodium Dichromate Exposure in Iraq

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Hundreds of military personnel may have been knowingly exposed to a cancer-causing agent, sodium dichromate, by defense contractor KBR while guarding the firm’s contract workers who were restoring the Qarmat Ali Water Plant in southern Iraq during 2003. Sodium dichromate is an orange sand-like chemical used to prevent rust on metal pipes. At the Qarmat Ali plant, it was seen on the ground and detected in the air.

The chemical’s chief ingredient is hexavalent chromium, the same carcinogen that was the focus of the movie, Erin Brockovich. Serious health effects of this toxic chemical may not show up for many years.

Hexavalent chromium can enter the body through numerous points, including inhalation, (where it may remain in the lungs for many years); inadvertent ingestion, or through contact with the skin.

Congressional hearings held in 2008 and 2009 have included testimony that defense contractor KBR and its subsidiaries knowingly exposed soldiers to the dangerous chemical, without providing proper protective gear. During repairs to restore oil production in Iraq between April and June 2003, the KBR contract employees doing the repairs often had proper gear but the military personnel protecting those workers did not. KBR denies any wrongdoing.

KBR’s health, safety, and environmental coordinator, Edward Blacke, noticed health problems among the guards and testified to Congress that he tried to warn supervisors of the exposure dangers from sodium dichromate. His warnings were ignored.