Congressional researchers say the military isn't sure how toxic exposure to extremely tiny levels of chemical arms may be over time. There are no plans for addressing the question.

That worries groups at sites where incinerators are planned to destroy such arms, since the Army has said amounts too small for current detectors to measure could escape smokestacks. One such plant is now operating at Utah's Deseret Chemical Depot.The U.S. General Accounting Office, a research arm of Congress, issued a report this week concluding that the military "has no chemical defense research program to determine the effects of low-level chemical exposures."

The GAO said that's because the military felt it has no "validated threat" of such exposure by potential enemies and it could find no consensus on what low-level exposure is or its effects.

However, the GAO said it

found instead that "past research indicates that low-level exposures to some chemical warfare agents may result in adverse short-term performance and long-term health effects."

Three senators, Robert Byrd, D-W.V.; John Glenn, D-Ohio; and Carl Levin, D-Mich., requested the GAO report because of suspicions that exposure to low levels of chemical arms may be the cause of mysterious illnesses suffered by many gulf war veterans.

Some Utahns, including former workers at Dugway Proving Ground and some who say they were affected by accidents there, also have claimed long-term health effects from low-level exposures to nerve gas.

For example, a family living in Skull Valley near a 1969 nerve gas accident that killed thousands of sheep was not exposed to large enough amounts to sicken or kill family members. But they said they suffered loss of memory, numbness, paranoia and other nervous system ailments that other studies said could be related to low-level exposure of nerve gas.

The Chemical Weapons Working Group, a Kentucky-based umbrella organization for groups protesting plans for more arms incinerators, says the GAO report raises questions about what the Army has said it figures are safe levels of chemical exposure.

The group's spokesman, Craig Williams, said, "The Army continues to claim that its `safe' worker and civilian exposure levels are adequately protective, while the evidence is overwhelming that this position is more an exercise in public relations rather than bona fide science."

He added, "The fact is, these `safe' exposure levels are taken from high dosage experiments the National Research Council recently found to be, `poorly controlled, inadequate and based on a limited toxicity base.' "

However, the research council itself has concluded in several studies that Army incineration of chemical arms is probably safe.

Williams also scoffed at the military telling the GAO that it could find no consensus about possible ill effects of low-level chemical arms exposure.

He noted that NATO handbooks, a 1997 Government Oversight Committee report and the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans Illnesses have agreed that low-level exposure can have adverse psychological, physical and performance effects.

"We consider that close enough to consensus, considering the Department of Defense wants to burn these chemical arms in our back yards," Williams said.

Byrd also issued a written statement, distributed by Williams' group, saying the Defense Department "has no strategy to address low-level exposures to chemical warfare agents. None. Nada. Zip. It seems both prudent and reasonable to at least begin the conceptual work to address the issue."

The GAO said while such a program does not now exist, "funding is under consideration for two multiyear research programs addressing low-level effects."