The elusive “Gulf War Syndrome” was caused by combinations of usually harmless chemicals that mingled as they came into contact with U.S. troops during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, according to new research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The research, based on examination of 249 Navy construction battalion members, suggests that the mysterious complaints grew not from battlefield stress, but were symptoms of physical damage inflicted by exposure to low-level doses of nerve gas, pesticide, anti-nerve-gas medicine and other substances.
“Illness from the gulf war is real,” declared Dr. Robert W. Haley, of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, who was chief investigator in the research.
“The syndromes are due to subtle brain, spinal cord and nerve damage - but not stress.”
The paper was another in a series of studies that have reached sharply different conclusions on a medical mystery that is also a matter of hot political dispute. Veterans groups, some of their allies in Congress and other critics maintain that the Pentagon has responded slowly and half-heartedly to the complaints of thousands of veterans.
On Tuesday, a 10-member expert panel convened by the White House issued a report faulting the Pentagon’s handling of the issue, but finding that nerve gas exposure was not likely to have caused the illnesses now under scrutiny.
Regarding the Texas study, some researchers quickly cautioned that it offered valuable new data and theories, but had weaknesses in method that made it less than definitive. The sample was small, the illnesses were self-reported, and the most intensive medical testing, using electronic instruments, was given to only five veterans, these researchers pointed out.
“This is another brick in the wall, but it isn’t definitive,” said Dr. Philip Landrigan, a researcher at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York and a member of the president’s advisory committee.
Landrigan, who wrote an editorial giving his own point of view in the same issue of the medical journal, said at a news conference that the Texas studies “raise very serious and substantial questions of neurotoxic effects. But they don’t pin it to the ground.”
The work by the Texas researchers was underwritten by Texas billionaire Ross Perot and had to undergo peer scrutiny before being published by the medical journal.
The study found that a quarter of the battalion members they examined suffered from symptoms they grouped into three major “syndromes.”
The Pentagon has said as many as 20,000 gulf war veterans may have been exposed to nerve gas when U.S. engineers blew up an Iraqi weapons dump in the desert area called Kamisiyeh.
But the problems reported in this study were unrelated to that, for the construction battalion was nowhere near that facility.
Other research has suggested that such chemicals may cause damage when they are combined. Last spring, researchers at Duke University reported nerve damage in animals who had been exposed to combinations of pesticides and the anti-nerve-gas tablets provided to troops in the gulf.