British firm sued in US over Gulf germ warfare

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A BRITISH COMPANY is to be sued by American Gulf war veterans who say it negligently exported chemicals used to make Iraqi biological weapons.

In the first case of its kind involving a UK company, Oxoid, a medical diagnostics firm from Bedford, is to be joined in a pounds 660m lawsuit brought by American armed forces personnel and their families.

Legal papers due to be served this month will say that the company, part of the Unilever subsidiary Unipath since 1986, negligently sold the Iraqis up to 18 tons of special "growth media" chemicals - a vital component of deadly germ weapons.

Oxoid's exports, normally used to develop bacteriological cultures, came to light this year when a United Nations Special Commission team investigated Iraqi chemical and germ warfare bases. Last week, a UN source said: "Barrels of the [Oxoid] stuff were all over the place."

The discovery led to Iraqi admissions that they been producing biological weapons, including anthrax, botulism and gas gangrene. More than 1,500 gallons of anthrax toxin and some 3,000 gallons of botulinum had been loaded into bombs and missile warheads. In Baghdad, inspectors had studied germ warfare agents such as haemorrhagic conjunctivitis virus (which causes blindness), yellow fever virus and Crimean Congo haemorrhagic fever virus.

In all, some 39 tons of growth media were imported by Iraq. Each ton could have produced 10 tons of germ warfare materials, enough to kill everyone on earth several times over.

Gulf war veterans say that exposure to Iraqi chemical and biological weapons (CBW) released by coalition bombing during the war and a cocktail of vaccines injected by troops to ward off CBW attack resulted in Desert Storm syndrome.

Over 50,000 US and British troops have suffered symptoms ranging from broken-down immune systems and wasting flesh to disproportionate numbers of deformed children. The US Defence Department has increased its budget for burials of Gulf war veterans. In Britain, the MoD has consistently denied that Gulf troops were exposed to chemical weapons despite numerous reports to the contrary.

More than 80 companies now face legal action for compensation. Others listed include the German industrial giant Thyssen and the French multi- national Rhone-Poulenc.

Frank Spagnoletti, the Texas-based lawyer co-ordinating the class action, will be filing papers against Oxoid within two weeks: "Once we get into the merits of the case, you'll have a lot of stories to print."

Because the case will be heard before a Texas jury the eventual damages could be astronomical, he said. "Potential jurors will be from rural communities and well aware of the suffering of Gulf war veterans.

"[Damages] will be whatever a jury thinks is fair in order to teach these companies a lesson - the sky's the limit," Mr Spagnoletti said. "I don't think you can sell products to people like Saddam Hussein with an ethical conscience. The history of what he used these products for has been well known for years. We've pleaded for in excess of a billion dollars, but I don't know what would stop people trading with such megalomaniacs."

Last week, Oxoid confirmed that it had exported the materials known as growth media, but said that, by themselves, they were benign and routinely sold to hospitals, pharmaceutical and food companies. Vice-president of microbiology, Mike Smith, said: "Throughout the Eighties, our products were supplied to Iraq, quite reasonably. But the UN inspectors believed they were not being used for the purpose intended.

"We've passed to the relevant authorities all documents relating to trade with that country. We're still sending Iraq small quantities of medical diagnostics materials under licence."

Toxic Avenger, Review