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Saddam Hussein's decision to torch Kuwaiti oil fields has already begun to cause environmental, as well as health, problems in the Middle East, according to University science professors. But the severity of environmental damage is still unknown, they said. In the future, scientists will have to struggle with how to extinguish the fires burning in the desert while dealing with the local environmental problems the fires have caused. The thick black cloud from the 200 burning oil wells in Kuwait is beginning to spread across the Middle East, the scientists said. In Bahrain, an island off the coast of Saudi Arabia, residents are worried about the possibility of health problems resulting from the deathly black cloud that has blown over their island, according to published reports. Geology Professor Ian Harker, who specializes in studying the atmosphere, said the cloud could be dangerous. "I imagine that it is quite a threat of respiratory disease if the smoke comes down low enough," Harker said. "Burning oil, especially without refining, can be quite toxic." Weather conditions will largely determine how damaging the fires are. Experts said the effects may not be too devastating because the black clouds have not risen high enough into the atmosphere to spread out over the world. "It will do damage to local Iran and Bahrain, but I will be very surprised if its effects appear much farther away," said Harker. Harker said if the winds blow the clouds over Iran and the Indian Ocean, rain will wash the smoke out of the atmosphere. Other experts agreed. "My understanding is that the oil is not going to get up to the highest part of atmosphere and it won't be carried world-wide," said Jack Kay, an atmospheric chemist at Drexel University. "It will be washed out in the next rain." But George Palladin, vice chairperson of the University's Chemistry Department, said the precipitation may pose other problems. "What happens is the sulfur oxides will help to create acid rain," Palladino said. "I expect that it will be confined to the Middle East and Asia." Palladino added the dramatic effects of the burning oil depend on how much oil is burned and how long it burns. Still, extinguishing more than 200 fires is the most difficult problem, experts said. The scientists said it could take several weeks to put out the fires. "In Kuwait, the fires could go on for a month or so," Harker said. Harker said oil fires are usually put out by explosions, but in this case the ground has grown increasingly hot and the fires are harder to approach. "Extremely hot blowing out may not work," said Harker. "The oil may hit the hot rock and ignite in another fire." Harker also said firefighters will need a great deal of water to cool down the rocks before they are "blown out." But, he added, there is a shortage of water since the pipes have been blown up in bombing raids. According to the Associated Press, firefighting experts say it normally takes four to five days to extinguish one fire but are unable to estimate how long it would take to extinguish all the desert fires. Experts said allied soldiers will not be able to get close to the fires because the ground is "awful hot."

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