ON most days, the thick clouds of acrid black smoke from hundreds of burning oil wells fill the sky over Kuwait City and blot out the sun. Out among the blazing wells south of the city, thick crude oil seeps out in the desert sand, turning large areas into sludge and rapidly expanding ``oil lakes.'' And in the Gulf itself, the world's largest oil slick continues to drift south, where it has already spoiled the Saudi coastline, killing fish and waterfowl alike.
All of this presents an ominous picture for the region. Yet apart from the likelihood of harmful effects, local and international health officials say it is too early to quantify long-term problems.
The city is rife with speculation about possible long-term health effects, but Kuwaiti officials have publicly voiced caution to avoid alarming the public. ``What we have now in terms of air pollution is not that dangerous to health,'' says Rashed al-Owaish, Kuwait's director of public health. ``However, we really don't know what's going to happen later on.''
Many Kuwaiti doctors criticize the government for not taking more steps to warn the public. ``To suggest the air quality problem is minor is to avoid the issue,'' says a doctor at a Kuwaiti hospital who asked to remain anonymous.
Sami Aly Aqub, an environmental scientist with the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research, says concern is growing ``about hydrocarbons entering the food chain and water supplies and being ingested by people and animals.''
Environmental groups and volunteers have been working since January along the Saudi coastline trying to block water-borne oil and clean birds covered in oil. There are actually three slicks in the Gulf, which began during the war and which have already killed off fish, valuable shrimp beds, and waterfowl.
Still another environmental problem in Kuwait, as well as Iraq and northern Saudi Arabia, is unexploded ordnance.
Military crews clearing mines from Gulf waters and Kuwaiti beaches say it may be years before much of the dangerous ordnance can be cleared.
But so far the oil fires have received most attention, given the unprecedented extent of the problem.
Among the burning wells, firefighters from three Texas companies say that apart from the smoke, they're more concerned about the seepage of crude oil into the ground from the many wells that are damaged but not burning. In fact, their initial efforts have focused on stopping the spread of ``oil lakes'' in the desert scrub land around the wells.
``Having all that oil on the ground makes the logistics of getting close enough to cap the wells that much more difficult,'' says Raymond Henry, a close assistant of Red Adair.
After many attempts, firefighters with the Texas-based Boots and Coots Co. used liquid nitrogen to snuff out the first fire last weekend and then ``capped'' the well by pumping mud through a cylinder custom-made to fit the damaged wellhead. The men say that this method, which has proved much faster than using water to snuff out the flames, will be effective on about 30 percent of the fires, and that soon they can work at a rate of three or four a day.
The many larger fires will present a greater challenge as the fighters will have to use explosives to rob the oxygen from around each well. When the flames are brought under control, however, the real problem will lie in stopping the flow of oil surging from the ground.
Ironically, some of the first steps taken were to set some nonburning wells on fire, to burn off poisonous gases and prevent oil buildup on the ground.
But health officials say that, although the overall situation is bad, they see no need to evacuate parts of the country.
``No one has sufficient information at this time to warrant making such a drastic decision,'' says Daniel Tarantola, an official with the World Health Organization which is helping the Kuwaitis prepare a long-term plan to deal with the country's health and environmental problems.