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Soldiers Sue Over Exposure to Toxin

Lawsuit accuses contractor of concealing risk of carcinogen that Indiana National Guard members encountered in Iraq

Managers for a large defense contractor wore protective suits when they visited a water-pumping plant guarded by Hoosier soldiers in Iraq five years ago. A month later, the company shut down the site because it was so contaminated.

Now, a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday accuses the private company, KBR of Texas, of publicly downplaying and privately concealing the risk faced by as many as 141 Indiana National Guard soldiers potentially exposed to a cancer-causing agent. "I hate to speculate about other folks' motives," said the plaintiffs' lead attorney, Mike Doyle, "but you have people in air-conditioned offices who are ignoring the fact that people in the field are being exposed to one of the most deadly carcinogens in the world.

"They're dragging their feet and not doing anything about it."

The suit, filed on behalf of 16 Indiana Guardsmen, says many who served at the plant near Basra, Iraq, in 2003 are still developing rashes and other health problems. Doyle said a battalion commander who isn't among the plaintiffs has been diagnosed with nasal cancer that may be connected to exposure there.

The suit names KBR and several related companies and seeks damages based on negligence and gross negligence claims. A statement from KBR on Wednesday said the company acted appropriately and that officials planned to vigorously fight the lawsuit.

The apparent culprit at the Qarmat Ali water-pumping plant was an orange, sandlike dust that covered much of the ground and equipment. It filled the air during windstorms.

The carcinogen, hexavalent chromium, is known to heighten the risk for cancer of the lungs and respiratory tract. In the 1990s, Erin Brockovich launched a famously successful class-action lawsuit against a California utility that allowed hexavalent chromium to seep into groundwater.

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