The Gulf Wasn't Hit As Hard As Scientists Thought

One of the biggest losers in last year's war in the Persian Gulf seemed to be the environment. By war's end, the gulf was awash in millions of barrels of oil. Hundreds of millions more were going up in flames and acrid black smoke. Researchers worried that much of the marine life in the fertile Persian Gulf would succumb to pollution.

That's why James W. Readman, an mrganic chemist at the Marine Environment Laboratory of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Monaco, was so surprised when he and a team of scientists measured the pollution in the gulf months after the war ended. As reported in the Aug. 19 issue of Nature, much of the oil that spilled into the water was rapidly being degraded. In addition, contamination from the toxic by-products of oil-burning was similar to levels found in places along the northeastern coast of the U.S. In fact, some samples from gulf sediments and shellfish showed less oil pollution than in the years before the war. The reason, says Readman, is that the war curtailed tanker traffic and other oil operations, dramatically reducing "normal" pollution from these sources--about 2 million barrels a year.

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