Chemical Weapons:

DOD Does Not Have a Strategy to Address Low-Level Exposures

NSIAD-98-228: Published: Sep 23, 1998. Publicly Released: Sep 23, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Department of Defense's (DOD) approach for addressing U.S. troop exposures to low levels of chemical warfare agents during the Gulf War, focusing on: (1) the extent to which the DOD doctrine addresses exposures to low levels of chemical warfare agents; (2) the extent to which research addresses the performance and health effects of exposures to low levels of chemical warfare agents, either in isolation or combination with other agents and contaminants that would be likely found on the battlefield; and (3) the portion of resources in DOD's chemical and biological defense research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) program explicitly directed at low-level chemical warfare agent exposures.

GAO noted that: (1) DOD does not have an integrated strategy to address low-level exposures to chemical warfare agents; (2) it has not stated a policy or developed a doctrine on the protection of troops from low-level chemical exposures on the battlefield; (3) past research indicates that low-level exposures to some chemical warfare agents may result in adverse short-term performance and long-term health effects; (4) DOD has no chemical defense research program to determine the effects of low-level exposures; (5) less than 2 percent of the RDT&E funds in DOD's chemical and biological defense program have been allocated to low-level issues in the last 2 fiscal years; (6) DOD's nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) doctrine is focused on mission accomplishment by maximizing the effectiveness of troops in a lethal NBC environment; (7) it does not address protection of the force from low-level chemical warfare agent exposures on the battlefield; (8) according to officials, DOD does not have a doctrine that addresses low-level exposures because there is no: (a) validated low-level threat; (b) consensus on the definition or meaning of low-level exposures; or (c) consensus on the effects of low-level exposures; (9) past research by DOD and others indicates that single and repeated low-level exposures to some chemical warfare agents can result in adverse psychological, physiological, behavioral, and performance effects that may have military implications; (10) the research, however, does not fully address the effects of low-level exposures to a wide variety of agents, either in isolation or combination with other agents and battlefield contaminants; chronic effects; reliability and validity of animal-human extrapolation models; the operational implications of the measured adverse impacts; and delayed performance and health effects; (11) during the last 2 fiscal years, DOD has allocated nearly $10 million, or approximately 1.5 percent of its chemical and biological defense RDT&E budget of $646 million, to fund research and development projects on low-level chemical warfare agent exposure issues; (12) however, these projects were not part of a structured DOD research program focused on low-level effects; and (13) DOD does not have a chemical and biological defense research program designed to evaluate the potential effects of low-level chemical warfare agent exposures, but funding is under consideration for two multiyear research programs addressing low-level effects.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Defense (DOD) has developed a 5-year research plan to determine the effects of chronic and low-dose exposures to chemical warfare agents. DOD's research plan was requested in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1999 based on GAO's findings that DOD had not developed doctrine that addresses low-level exposures to chemical agents, either in isolation or in combination with other contaminants found on the battlefield. GAO had found that the absence of DOD doctrine was attributable, in part, to the lack of a consensus on the effects of low-level exposures. Research findings will enable DOD to establish chemical defense doctrine and policy regarding chronic and low-level exposures.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should develop an integrated strategy for comprehensively addressing force protection issues resulting from low-level chemical warfare agent exposures. The strategy for addressing force protection issues should address, at a minimum, the desirability of an Office of the Secretary of Defense policy on the protection of troops from low-level chemical warfare agent exposures, including: (1) the appropriateness of addressing low-level chemical warfare agent exposures in doctrine; (2) the need for enhanced low-level chemical warfare agent detection, identification, and protection capabilities; (3) the research needed to fully understand the risks posed by exposures to low levels of chemical warfare agents, in isolation and in combination with other contaminants that would be likely found on the battlefield; and (4) the respective risks, cost, and benefits of addressing low-level chemical warfare agent exposures within DOD's chemical and biological defense program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

 

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