First American soldier to die by toxin laden water

Bullets whizzing by your head are one thing. IEDs just waiting to blowup passing troops is a daily occurrence. Such are the hazards of trying to survive in a war-zone. What isn’t expected though is to die because of toxin laden water.

However such is the case of Indiana National Guardsman Lt. Col. Jim Gentry who when he passed away this past Tuesday was classified as the first American soldier to die from exposure to a cancer-causing toxin while serving in Iraq.

The guilty agent in the matter was a hexavalent chromium which the Iraqis use to prevent corrosion in the pipes used to pump water into the ground at oil-pumping sites. The chemical has been linked to leukemia and several other kinds of cancer, as well as leading to damage of the liver and kidneys. It is also the same chemical poison that was blown onto the clothes and into the faces of hundreds of unknown soldiers in one of Iraq’s wind swept deserts.

Hexavalent Chromium is the same compound that lead to the famous “Erin Brockovich” trial in California and what Max Costa, chairman of New York University’s Department of Environmental Medicine calls the one of the most potent carcinogens know to man.

“I’m dying now because of it,” Gentry said 11 months ago while answering questions from lawyers embroiled in a legal battle over who is to blame for hundreds of soldiers’ exposure to the chemical.

Gentry, of the 1st Battalion, 152nd Infantry of the Indiana National Guard, commanded more than 600 soldiers in Iraq, including about 140 from Indiana.

He is included among a growing group of those soldiers who are suing Houston-based defense contractor KBR Inc., which the soldiers blame for not properly protecting them.

Source:Courier Press

The area in Iraq where this was supposed to happen was the Qarmat Ali facility which KBR took over control of after it had been looted and abandoned. Part of that looting was the slashing open of the containers holding the chemical. Then during many of the high wind storms that are found in the area the rust-colored chemical was spread into the air and ground around the facility.

KBR has denied any responsibility or wrong doing that might have led to any soldiers becoming ill or dying. However in light of a recent lawsuit filed against KBR by soldiers a whistle-blower has come forward with some pretty damning documents and information.

Former KBR employee Edward Blacke — who worked for the company as its health, safety and environmental coordinator in Iraq — described in a written report to the Senate Democratic Policy Committee what he said were criminally negligent actions that led to illnesses such as Gentry’s.

A trained emergency medical technician, Blacke said soldiers and contractors alike were showing similar symptoms when he arrived at the Qarmat Ali facility. They were coughing up blood, dealing with severe eye, nose and throat irritation and struggling to breathe.

Along with an Iraqi interpreter, Blacke checked the slashed-open bags and discovered that they contained sodium dichromate, which contains hexavalent chromium.

“He (the interpreter) was reluctant to say more, and when pressed, he said he knew it was poisonous and that he was aware of many workers from the plant who were made ill by it,” Blacke told the committee.

After digging in, Blacke said he was “totally taken aback” to find that KBR knew as early as May 2003 of the toxin’s presence, but it ignored both a United Nations report and an internal report and failed to notify its workers there and the soldiers who were guarding the plant.

Source: Courier Press

Besides the on-going lawsuit U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) has been following any developments relating to the soldiers exposure and has introduced legislation that would ensure the affected soldiers get the proper medical treatment.