Karshi-Khanabad (K2) Air Base
Camp Stronghold Freedom
When US forces arrived at Karshi-Khanabad in 2001 it was a bare bones, rustic site, as is often the case with contingency operations. The most common complaint was of a bad smell coming from a trench near the tent city. Others talked about "black goo" while digging or mentioned high levels of disease, like tuberculosis.
At any new site, an occupational and environmental baseline (EBS) survey is a required part of the health risk assessment process. In Nov 2001, the US Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine-Europe (USACHPPM-EUR) did an EBS. They found widespread jet fuel plumes, usually 1-3 meters under ground, most likely from a leaking Soviet-era underground fuel distribution system. This was the cause of the odor and pooling associated with digging.
They also found smaller, localized areas of surface dirt contaminated with asbestos and low-level radioactive processed uranium, both from the destruction of Soviet missiles several years prior.
Finally, the amount of dust and other particles in the air was often high, varying with the season and weather, e.g., dust storms.
Although the odor was unpleasant, the fuel vapor level found in the area of the trench was well below the Minimal Risk Level developed by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Noses are sensitive and can sometimes detect chemicals at low levels that are not harmful to health.
Asbestos was present. However, it was not detected in the air and would not be inhaled, so any health risk from asbestos was very small. The level of radioactivity found could get through the skin, so the only health risk would be from breathing radioactive dust in the air or by living or working directly over the most radioactive areas. Neither of these situations was detected at K-2.
Dust is an irritant that bothers some people more than others. Symptoms such as cough, sneezing, sinus congestion, sinus drainage ("drip"), and sore throat are common during peak periods. People with asthma or allergies may have felt worse or needed more medicine than usual. These effects usually went away quickly after the local weather improved and permanent health effects were uncommon.
Health effects from short-term, low-dose exposures found at K-2 were unlikely. However, a few scientists and clinicians felt that low doses of one or more environmental agents might cause a wide variety of symptoms in certain sensitive people. There was conflicting evidence and not everyone agreed. Reported symptoms might include depression, anxiety, or unexplained physical symptoms such as fatigue, subjective memory and concentration problems, chronic pain, or an irritable bowel. Such symptoms could appear for many reasons and most commonly occured in people without any known exposure to environmental contaminants. This made it hard for an individual, or their doctor, to tell if the symptoms were due to any specific K-2 exposure. Any new information about K-2 exposures or associated health effects was to be be sent to health care providers and service members right away.
The air base leadership took rapid protective action in Novemeber 2001. They filled the offending trench with clean soil to create a cap to hold the vapors underground. They also covered the areas of radioactive soil and asbestos with a thick layer of clean dirt to keep people safe. These areas remained off-limits to everyday activity, and both permission and protective equipment were required before any digging could occur. Air monitoring and other follow-up sampling were at the time ongoing to ensure that conditions did not change and that the measures remained effective.
News media in June 2002 reported that trace amounts of nerve and blister agents were detected in some areas of the K-2 complex. However, testing of new samples using specialized testing equipment was completely negative for chemical warfare agents. The initial tests, conducted using less specific equipment, apparently gave false positive results most likely due to contaminants from recent painting and other refurbishing activities. Monitoring continued at K-2 to ensure service members remain protected and to provide early detection and reporting if conditions change.
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