SAN DIEGO - A class of chemicals that includes nerve agents, pesticides and a drug to counter nerve gas may be causing the chronic fatigue, severe muscle pain and other illnesses that about 250,000 Persian Gulf War veterans are experiencing, a San Diego researcher said yesterday.
"Enough studies have been conducted and the results shared to be able to say with considerable confidence that there is a link between chemical exposure" and those ailments, said Dr. Beatrice Golomb, the report's author and an associate professor at the UCSD School of Medicine.
Her research was published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Golomb said the veterans' vulnerability to such symptoms might be amplified by genetic mutations that reduced their ability to process pyridostigmine bromide, or PB, a drug intended to neutralize or suppress the effects of nerve agents other than soman.
She made a similar assertion in 1999, and the military now tells troops to take PB pills only when they suspect an attack using soman.
"It doesn't matter whether they were exposed to the pills, the nerve agent itself or the pesticides. People with any of these exposures showed increased rates of health problems," Golomb said.
About 700,000 U.S. troops were deployed for the Persian Gulf War, which lasted from August 1990 through February 1991. More than one-third of them may have been exposed to pesticides used to kill sand flies in Kuwait and Iraq, nerve gas or chemicals released after U.S. planes blew up a munitions bunker in Khamisiyah, Iraq.
Scott Langhoff, a regional leader for the nonprofit group Veterans of Foreign Wars, said he's glad Golomb and others are still trying to isolate a cause of suffering for so many Persian Gulf War vets.
"If we can figure out that these conditions are related to experiences during our service, we might be a step closer to curing them or at least obtaining free treatment and compensation for the disability they cause," Langhoff said.
Since the early 1990s, researchers worldwide have conducted hundreds of studies to determine whether a link exists between chemicals and the group of illnesses that many veterans have labeled as Gulf War syndrome. Their conclusions are mixed, and the syndrome theory remains a topic of intense debate in military and scientific circles.
Officials for the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs did not return calls seeking comment on Golomb's new report.
Golomb is among the scientists who see a connection between the chemicals and health problems. Her report analyzed findings from more than two dozen studies of thousands of Persian Gulf War veterans from the United States, Australia and European nations who were exposed to a class of chemicals called acetylcholinesterase inhibitors and organophosphates. The class includes nerve gases such as sarin.
Even outside the military setting, Golomb said, studies show a link between exposure to pesticides used in agriculture and similar complaints of illness among farmworkers.
"These findings add to evidence for concern about the health effects of pesticide exposure," she said.
Golomb suggested that pesticide use be limited to settings "where there is a clear public health necessity."
The federal government and various researchers said there is no set of symptoms that can be defined as a syndrome resulting from service in the Persian Gulf War.
Although they acknowledge that U.S. and foreign veterans who served in the conflict have genuine health complaints, they said there is no definable pattern because the symptoms vary so greatly among individuals.
Illnesses linked to the war include debilitating fatigue, muscle and joint pain, rashes, memory lapses, cognitive difficulties, gastrointestinal problems and sleep disturbances.
Golomb said the federal government's position lacks credence because every complex disease or health condition manifests itself differently among patients.
When asked about why the government's studies have arrived at conclusions different than hers, she replied, "There is a culture in the field that has tried to reinforce a different view."
An estimated 250,000 service members in Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm were given the drug pyridostigmine bromide because the military thought it would offer protection against nerve agents.
In addition, as many as 41,000 troops may have been overexposed to pesticides from the same chemical family. Those compounds were used to control insects such as sand flies.
Also, 100,000 military personnel may have come into contact with nerve agents, including sarin or cyclosarin, during events such as the destruction of the munitions bunker.
© 2008 San Diego Union-Tribune