Gulf War syndrome update: Reviving a 20-year debate over illnesses of veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf war, a new scientific paper presents evidence that nerve agents released by the bombing of Iraqi chemical weapons depots just before the ground war began could have carried downwind and fallen on American troops staged in Saudi Arabia. The paper, published in the journal Neuroepidemiology, tries to rebut the longstanding Pentagon position, supported by many scientists, that neurotoxins, particularly sarin gas, could not have carried far enough to sicken American forces.
The authors are James J. Tuite and Dr. Robert Haley, who has written several papers asserting links between chemical exposures and gulf war illnesses. They assembled data from meteorological and intelligence reports to support their thesis that American bombs were powerful enough to propel sarin from depots in Muthanna and Falluja high into the atmosphere, where winds whisked it hundreds of miles south to the Saudi border. Once over the American encampments, the toxic plume could have stalled and fallen back to the surface because of weather conditions, the paper says.
Though troops would have been exposed to low levels of the agent, the authors assert that the exposures may have continued for several days, increasing their impact. Chemical weapons detectors sounded alarms in those encampments in the days after the January 1991 bombing raids, but they were viewed as false by many troops, the authors report. A significant number of medical experts have cast doubts on the sarin gas theory over the years, and several said Dec. 13 that the new paper did little to change their minds.
Dr. John Bailar, an emeritus professor at the University of Chicago, who led a group that studied gulf war illnesses in 1996, said there was still no clear evidence that troops might have been exposed to levels of sarin significant enough to have a biological effect. Dr. Bailar said that the stress of war rather than chemical agents might be a more likely cause of the veterans’ problems.
“Gulf war syndrome is real,” Bailar said, using the term for a constellation of symptoms. “And the veterans who have it deserve appropriate medical care. But we should not kid ourselves about its causes or about the most effective means of treatment.”
Nearly half of the 700,000 service members who were deployed in 1990 and 1991 for the Gulf War have filed disability claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs, and more than 85 percent of those have been granted benefits, the department has reported. Many of those veterans have reported long-lasting problems, including chronic pain, memory loss, persistent fatigue and diarrhea, some of which had no clear causes. Many veterans insist that their problems are not the result of stress but have a biological basis. Paul Sullivan, a gulf war veteran who has advocated for more research into the illnesses, said the new paper provided “overwhelming scientific evidence” that exposure to chemical agents sickened those troops and that the Department of Veterans Affairs should ensure that all receive health care and benefits. Panels of medical experts have come down on both sides of the issue, with one group in 2000 questioning whether low levels of sarin could cause long-term health problems and another in 2004 concluding that toxic chemicals had caused neurological damage in many troops.
The Pentagon has acknowledged that the postwar demolition of a chemical weapons depot at Kamisiya, in southern Iraq, may have exposed 100,000 troops to nerve gas. But the military has said it was unlikely that nerve gas caused long-term illnesses in troops, a position it reiterated Dec. 13. Many Gulf War veterans have been fighting for years to get Veterans Administration benefits for their medical conditions and have refused a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnosis to qualify. Instead, they insist their problems are physiological.
U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, (R-Texas), who has helped secure funding for research over the years, praised Haley and Tuite for their work to pin down the causes of Gulf War Illness. “Now that we know the probable cause of (the sickness), we need to find effective treatments,” she said. “I also call on the U.S. Department of Defense to study these findings to protect against chemical weapons fallout in future conflicts.” An abstract of the paper is available on the Journal of Neuro-Epidemiology website at www.content.karger.com/ProdukteDB/produkte.asp?Aktion=ShowAbstract&ArtikelNr=345124&Ausgabe=257603&ProduktNr=224263. [Source: New York Times | James Dao 13 Dec 2012]
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