Report to Congress: Gulf War Syndrome is Real

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The Los Angeles Times

Report to Congress: Gulf War Syndrome is Real

A scientific panel chartered by Congress cites nerve gas drug and pesticides used during the conflict as being associated with veterans' neurological problems.

by
Mary Engel and Thomas H. Maugh II

French soldiers wear chemical warfare suits during the Gulf War. A congressionally-mandated panel has concluded that "Gulf War syndrome" is real and that more than a quarter of the 700,000 US veterans of the 1991 conflict suffer from the illness. (AFP/File/Pascal Guyot)

A
congressionally mandated scientific panel has concluded that Gulf War
syndrome is real and still afflicts nearly a quarter of the 700,000
U.S. troops who served in the 1991 conflict, according to a report
released Monday.

The report broke with most earlier studies by
concluding that two chemical exposures were direct causes of the
disorder: the drug pyridostigmine bromide, given to troops to protect
against nerve gas, and pesticides that were widely used -- and often
overused -- to protect against sand flies and other pests.

"The extensive body of scientific research now
available consistently indicates that Gulf War illness is real, that it
is a result of neurotoxic exposures during Gulf War deployment, and
that few veterans have recovered or substantially improved with time,"
according to the 450-page report presented to Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Peake.

The
report bolstered the hopes of thousands of U.S. and allied veterans who
have struggled to have their varied neurological symptoms, including
memory loss, concentration problems, rashes and widespread pain,
recognized by the government.

"I've had vets go to the VA and be
turned away and told that this is something that doesn't exist," said
John Schwertfager, vice president of the National Gulf War Resource
Center, a veterans advocacy group.

But some scientists were not convinced that the new report had found the long-sought smoking gun.

"Even
though we know that the Department of Defense did ship pesticides, it
doesn't mean that the people who were exposed to them were the ones who
ended up having symptoms," said Dr. Lynn Goldman, a professor of
environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore
who has worked on previous reports on the illness. "We felt that there
needed to be better records of where people were, what they were
exposed to and their prior health status going in."

The new
report is the product of the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War
Veterans' Illnesses, which was chartered by Congress because many
members thought that veterans were not receiving adequate care. On the
15-member committee appointed in 2002, scientists made up about
two-thirds and the rest were veterans.

Several reports had
already been issued by the prestigious Institute of Medicine, an arm of
the National Academy of Sciences, blaming stress and other unknown
causes for the soldiers' symptoms.

"There's something about
going to the Gulf and serving in the Gulf that has caused something bad
and persistent and real, but we have not found any evidence for a
specific cause," said Dr. Harold C. Sox, chairman of a 2000 institute
study and editor of the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

Veterans blame the institute's reports for the difficulties they've faced in getting treatment for their problems.

"Everyone
quotes the Institute of Medicine documents as meaning nothing's going
on here," said Roberta F. White, associate dean of research at the
Boston University School of Public Health and the congressional panel's
scientific director. "Some people feel that the IOM reports have been
permission to ignore these guys."

The new report cites dozens of
research studies that have identified "objective biological measures"
that distinguish veterans with the illness from healthy controls.

The
major causes of the disorder appear to be self-inflicted.
Pyridostigmine bromide was given to as many as half of the troops in
the fear that the Iraqis would unleash chemical warfare against them.

According
to the report, at least 64 pesticides containing 37 active ingredients
were used during the war. They were sprayed not only around living and
dining areas, but also on tents and uniforms, White said.

There
was less evidence to support a link to the U.S. demolition of Iraqi
munitions near Khamisiyah, which may have exposed about 100,000 troops
to nerve gases stored at the facility, according to the panel.

The
panel said it could not rule out a link between the illness and
exposure to oil well fires and multiple vaccinations. But it could find
no evidence linking it to depleted uranium shells, anthrax vaccine and
infectious diseases.

In addition to increased rates of memory
loss, fatigue and pain, Gulf War veterans have higher rates of brain
cancer and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, the
panel also noted.

The panel called on Congress to appropriate $60 million a year to conduct research into finding a cure for the disorder.

"The
tragedy here is that there are currently no treatments," said the
panel's chairman, James H. Binns, a former principal deputy assistant
secretary of Defense and a Vietnam veteran.

Binns emphasized that the report was not written to yield recriminations about past actions.

"The importance . . . lies in what is done with it in the future," he said. "It's a blueprint for the new administration."

Engel and Maugh are Times staff writers.

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