What to Know About the Health Effects of Oil Well Fires on Veterans

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on June 08, 2022

Oil well fires occur when oil wells catch fire and burn. Such fires may be due to natural effects like lightning, accidents, or human activity. The oil fire produces smoke that contains soot particles and other waste products that are harmful to human health and the environment.

What Happens When an Oil Well Burns?

During the Gulf War of 1991 between Iraq and Kuwait, fire from oil wells burned millions of barrels in a day. Smoke containing soot and other unburnt petroleum products was released into the environment. People then inhaled air containing compounds that are harmful to the human body. 

Those compounds included carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, sulfur oxide, and some volatile hydrocarbons that have the potential to cause health issues when they infiltrate the respiratory system.

Soot is the black powder formed after incomplete combustion. When released into the environment, it causes a haze decreasing visibility in the air. Also, other compounds like sulfur oxide and nitrate oxide that are released into the atmosphere react with rainwater to form acid rain. This acid rain has detrimental effects when it joins the natural water bodies like rivers and lakes.

What Are the Health Effects of Oil Well Fires on War Veterans?

An example of the health effects of oil well fires can be seen in the Gulf War veterans that were exposed to smoke and gas produced by oil well fires in Kuwait in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm. Their effect on the health of war veterans depends on factors like:

  • How long you were exposed. When you come into contact with the smoke from oil fires for a long period, you are generally more affected than a person who has been exposed for a shorter period.
  • How close you were to the fire and smoke. If you were too close to the smoke or fire, you will inhale more smoke and unburned particles.
  • Type of gas and particles you inhaled. Some gasses, like sulfur oxide and nitrate oxide, can have very harmful effects on your health if you inhale them. They are known for their tendency to form acid when they come in contact with moist surfaces like your nose, which can eventually cause nasal irritation while you breathe.

Most veterans showed signs and symptoms of short-term health effects after their exposure to the oil well fires. The body has a natural defense mechanism that helps when cleaning such pollutants from the body to try and limit the impact felt. Some of the symptoms of exposure to oil well fires include: 

  • A running nose (excess drainage of thin or thick mucus)
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat
  • Worsening of asthma and other sinus conditions

Research done on the victims of the oil well fires did not show many cases of long-term effects on their health. However, individuals who are at risk of getting long–term or chronic health effects from oil well fire exposure include: 

  • People that experienced acute symptoms during the time of exposure.
  • Individuals who had breathing-related problems before the exposure incident
  • People who were exposed to high levels of smoke particles and gas.

Some evidence was found to link the exposure of specific waste compounds to certain diseases in the human body. These compounds and the conditions that they were linked to are:

Medical review showed a clear relationship between the increase in brain cancer cases in the Gulf region and the exposure of the Gulf War veterans to the oil well fire, smoke, and gas. The effects on their nervous systems were visible, prompting a study on the effects of the chemical exposure on the veterans. Also, several compounds (i.e. bromide and sarin) known to cause adverse effects on the nervous system were isolated during operations.

What Are the Different Types of Oil Wells?

An oil well is a long hole drilled deep into the earth for oil and other gas extraction from below the ground. There are different types of wells, including:

  • Conventional wells. This is the typical type of well. These are drilled straight downward to the point just above the oil or gas reservoir (e.g., a rock formation where natural gas and oil have been trapped).
  • Horizontal wells. These are primarily drilled when the conventional wells do not give the required volume results. Here, the drill enters the reservoir horizontally. Horizontal wells are mostly used in combination with fracking drilling to get gas that is trapped in the rocks. 
  • Offshore wells. These are wells that are drilled on the ocean bed to extract oil and other petroleum products from a rock at the bottom of the ocean.
  • Multilateral wells. These are wells that have branches off the main drill hole and tap into other reservoirs.

Show Sources


ENERGY EDUCATION: “Soot.”  “Oil wells.”

Institute of Medicine: “Gulf War and Health: Volume 3: Fuel, Combustion product, and Propellant.”

Cortex: “Recent research on Gulf War illness and other health problems in veterans of the 1991 Gulf War: Effects of toxicant exposures during deployment.”

U.S Department of Veterans Affairs: “War Related Illness and Injury Study Center.”

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