Oil Fires, Kuwait

Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 4th June 1991.

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Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow 12:00 am, 4th June 1991

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will specify the medical qualifications of those responsible for monitoring the health of sappers engaged in support of those fighting oil fires in Kuwait; how many doctors are engaged in this work; how frequently checks of the lungs are conducted; what conclusions have been drawn from the appearance of black spots on dissected sheep; what expertise is available on the consequences of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and hydrogen sulphide in the atmosphere; and what plans he has for rotational use of sappers.

Photo of Sir Archie Hamilton Sir Archie Hamilton The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

There are six doctors and 46 medical support personnel with our forces in Kuwait. In addition, a military public health physician is regularly monitoring the lung function of service personnel in the area of the oil fires and expert advice has been sought on atmospheric pollutants. There are no plans for the roulement of Royal Engineers in Kuwait. I have no information about black spots on dissected sheep.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

In that case, the Minister should have such information. In view of expert medical opinion on the findings on sheep's lungs, what do we suppose is happening to human lungs? Is not it the truth that military personnel and civilians are at dire risk on account of aromatic hydrocarbons, of getting cancer over 10 years?

Photo of Sir Archie Hamilton Sir Archie Hamilton The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I am told that the most likely cause of the black spots is soot and that they are, therefore, similar to the black spots to be found on the lungs of coal miners or of people living in London at the time of smog. The hon. Gentleman referred to the carcinogenic effects of the air that is being inhaled in Kuwait. The effects are basically thought to be long term rather than short term and, in the short term, are not reckoned to be any worse on our people in Kuwait than are the effects of smoking 20 cigarettes a day or of suffering from passive smoking.

Photo of Mr Robert Adley Mr Robert Adley , Christchurch

Nevertheless, is my hon. Friend aware that increasing numbers of people, including many diplomats in the Gulf, have the impression that the American company Bechtel is somehow preventing British companies and other European companies from tackling the fires in Kuwait far more effectively? Although I recognise my hon. Friend's ministerial responsibility, will he at least have a word with colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry to see whether the problem can be tackled? For the sake of all of us, the fires must be put out as quickly as possible.

Photo of Sir Archie Hamilton Sir Archie Hamilton The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I can assure my hon. Friend that a tremendous amount of work has been done to ensure that British firms play a big role in the reconstruction of Kuwait. A number of British firms are now involved in putting out fires.