As tensions mount in the Persian Gulf, a top military expert said American troops are vulnerable to chemical and biological weapons, or so-called "dusty agents."
Recently declassified Pentagon documents indicate that before the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq probably had biological weapons, including anthrax and botulinum toxin, that can penetrate the protective suits and masks of American troops.
United Nations inspectors suspect Iraq still may have much of its biological warfare capability.
And despite Pentagon assurances that American troops are better protected than they were seven years ago, Michael Rosene, a scientist at the National Ground Intelligence Center, said they still are vulnerable to dusty agents - chemical and biological weapons that attach themselves to tiny dust particles that can slip through protective suits and gas masks.
"What we've got today is pretty much what we had then," said Rosene.
"There's some improvements in the works, but the stuff that's made it out to the pointy end isn't much better.
"The wheels have been turning slowly. This is the government, after all."
Rosene was one of three authors of a 1988 study that showed that the permeable chemical suits used by U.S. troops and their NATO allies could be penetrated by dusty agents.
The study also found that most U.S. chemical detectors could not detect dusty agents.
The study, and the fact that Iraq had made and used dusty chemical agents during its 1980-88 war with Iran, were reported by the Belleville News-Democrat in a two-part series in September.
Recently declassified documents on the Pentagon's Gulflink Internet site show that besides dusty mustard and nerve agents, Iraq was thought to have produced dusty biological weapons, probably botulinum toxin and anthrax.
Dusty agents are not new. Dusty carriers often are used with agricultural chemicals, and the Nazis tested dusty chemical weapons on concentration camp prisoners.
Russian troops captured the Nazi data in 1945. They and their former Warsaw Pact allies have continued to use impermeable rubber chemical suits, despite the increased problem of heat stress.
At a Pentagon briefing Thursday, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Kenneth Bacon said that troops in the Persian Gulf are getting new masks, new lightweight chemical suits and new chemical and biological weapons detectors.
But the detectors are considered experimental. The suits remain permeable to allow sweat and body heat to escape. Officials admit they probably still allow dusty agents to get through, even though the suits have not been tested.
American troops in the Gulf War were told to wear waterproof ponchos or rain suits over their chemical suits to reduce the risk from dusty agents. But improvements in protective gear since the war apparently have not focused on the issue of dusty agents.
That is changing, but slowly, Rosene said. Researchers are trying to find the right balance between heat stress and dusty agent penetration.
"There has been some discussion of that trade-off, and generally what has been agreed is that you don't need a 100-percent solution," he said. "The question is, what is good enough?".
That question also applies to anthrax, which has gained increased attention because of the relative ease in which it can be converted to a biological weapon. Last week, two men were arrested in Las Vegas, accused of having what federal officials think may be anthrax.
Anthrax is a livestock disease that typically threatens only veterinarians and other livestock workers who come in contact with the disease spores. But an anthrax weapon would probably release the spores as a deadly aerosol. If inhaled, anthrax is almost 100 percent fatal unless antibiotic treatment begins before the onset of symptoms three to five days later. Thousands of Gulf War troops received an anthrax vaccine that is known to protect against the contact form of anthrax and is believed to protect against inhalation anthrax.
In December, the News-Democrat reported that the Pentagon plans to eventually vaccinate all active duty and reserve military members - about 2.5 million troops - against anthrax starting this spring.
Since then, military scientists have announced that Russia experimented with a genetically engineered form of anthrax that may not be stopped by the vaccine.
Originally Published, Feb. 22, 1998, Belleville News Democrat, Belleville,
(c) 1998, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill.
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