WASHINGTON - At least one in four U.S. veterans of the 1991 Gulf War suffers from a multi-symptom illness caused by exposure to toxic chemicals during the conflict, a congressionally mandated report being released Monday found.
For much of the past 17 years, government officials have maintained that these veterans -- more than 175,000 out of about 697,000 deployed -- are merely suffering the effects of wartime stress, even as more have come forward recently with severe ailments.
“The extensive body of scientific research now available consistently indicates that ’Gulf War illness’ is real, that it is the result of neurotoxic exposures during Gulf War deployment, and that few veterans have recovered or substantially improved with time,” said the report, being released Monday by a panel of scientists and veterans. A copy was obtained by Cox Newspapers.
Gulf War illness is typically characterized by a combination of memory and concentration problems, persistent headaches, unexplained fatigue and widespread pain. It may also include chronic digestive problems, respiratory symptoms and skin rashes.
Two things the military provided to troops in large quantities to protect them -- pesticides and pyridostigmine bromide (PB), aimed at thwarting the effects of nerve gas -- are the most likely culprits, the panel found.
The Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses, created by Congress in 2002, presented its 450-page report to Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Peake on Monday. It said its report is the first to review the hundreds of U.S. and international studies on Gulf War vets since that have been conducted the mid-1990s.
In a 2004 draft report to Congress, the panel said that many Gulf veterans were suffering from neurological damage caused by exposure to toxic chemicals.
The new report goes further by pinpointing known causes and it criticizes past U.S. studies, which have cost more than $340 million, as “overly simplistic and compartmentalized.”
It recommends that the Department of Veterans Affairs order a re-do of past Gulf War and Health reports, calling them “skewed” because they did not include evaluations of toxic exposure studies in lab animals, as Congress had requested.
The panel examined such tests and noted that recent ones -- unethical to carry out on humans - have identified biological effects from Gulf War exposures that were previously unknown.
While it called some new VA and DOD programs promising, it noted that overall federal funding for Gulf War research has dropped sharply in recent years. Those studies that have been funded, it said, “have little or no relevance to the health of Gulf War veterans, and for research on stress and psychiatric illness.”
“Veterans of the 1990-1991 Gulf War had the distinction of serving their country in a military operation that was a tremendous success, achieved in short order. But many had the misfortune of developing lasting health consequences that were poorly understood and, for too long, denied or trivialized,” the committee’s report says.
The report also faults the Pentagon, saying it clearly recognized scientific evidence substantiating Gulf War illness in 2001 but did not acknowledge it publicly.
It said that Acting Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Gulf War illnesses Lt. Gen. Dale Vesser remarked that year that although Saddam Hussein didn’t use nuclear, biological, or chemical agents against coalition forces during the war -- an assertion still debated -- “It never dawned on us ././. that we may have done it to ourselves.”
“We know that at least 40,000 American troops may have been overexposed to pesticides,” Vesser said, adding that more than 250,000 American troops took the small, white PB pills. “Both of these substances may (be) consistent with the symptoms that some Gulf War veterans have.”
The panel is urging Congress to spend at least $60 million annually for Gulf War research. It notes that no effective treatments have yet been found.
The VA declined to comment until it has a chance to review the report.
The panel focused its research on comparing the brain and nervous system of healthy adults with those of sick Gulf War vets, as well as analyzing changes to the neuroendocrine and immune systems.
It found that in terms of brain function, exposure to pesticides and the PB pills hurts people’s memory, attention and mood. Some people, it notes, are genetically more susceptible to exposures than others.
About half of Gulf War personnel are believed to have taken PB tablets during deployment, with the greatest use among ground troops and those in forward positions.
Many veterans say they were forced to take the pills, which had not been approved by the FDA, and some said they immediately became sickened.
“Many of us got sick from the pills,” said retired Staff Sgt. Anthony Hardie, a Wisconsin native who was with a multinational unit that crossed from Saudi Arabia into Kuwait and then Iraq.
He said he was required to take them for several weeks and soon suffered from watery eyes and vision problems, diarrhea, muscle twitching and a runny nose. A fellow Special Forces officer, he said, lost about 20 pounds in short order. “All of us had concerns at the time.”
To ward off swarms of sand flies in Kuwait City and the eastern Saudi province of Dhahran, Hardie said trucks would come through at 3 a.m. and spray “clouds” of pesticides.
Fly strips that smelled toxic hung “everywhere,” especially near food. “The pesticide use was far and away (more) than what you’d see in daily life,” he said.
Several soldiers interviewed said they were ordered to dunk their uniforms in the pesticide DEET and to spray pesticide routinely on exposed skin and in their boots to ward off scorpions. Others wore pet flea collars around their ankles.
The federal panel added that it also could not rule out an association between Gulf War illness and the prolonged exposure to oil fires, as well as low-level exposures to nerve agents, injections of many vaccines and combinations of neurotoxic exposures.
Hardie, a panel member, is convinced that he was later exposed to the chemical warfare agent Lewisite in a freshly abandoned Iraqi bunker; he noted its signature strong geranium smell.
He said he and others in his unit who ran miles a day past burning oil wells later hacked up black chunks of mucus and what he says his doctors think were pieces of his lung tissue. He said civilian doctors have diagnosed him with fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, dizziness, confusion, acid reflux disease and chronic sinusitis.
He was not among the 100,000 U.S. troops who were potentially exposed to low-levels of Sarin gas, a nerve agent, as a result of large-scale U.S. demolitions of Iraqi munitions near Khamisiyah, Iraq, in 1991.
Troops who were downwind from the demolitions have died from brain cancer at twice the rate of other Gulf War veterans, the report stated.
A panel member, Dr. Roberta White, chair of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health, found evidence last year linking low-level exposure to nerve gas among in Persian Gulf troops with lasting brain deficits.
The extent of the deficits - less brain “white matter” and reduced cognitive function -- corresponded to the extent of the exposure.
In addition, the panel said, Gulf War veterans have significantly higher rates of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) than other veterans.
White said that while there is a lot of anecdotal evidence of Gulf War vets contracting multiple sclerosis (MS), studies haven’t confirmed a combat link to that degenerative disease. Questions also remain about rates of cancers, disease-specific mortality rates in Gulf War veterans and the health of veterans’ children.
Conversely, the panel said there is little evidence supporting an association or major link with depleted uranium, anthrax vaccine, fuels, solvents, sand and particulates, infectious diseases, and chemical agent resistant coating (CARC).
The fact that veterans repeatedly still find that their complaints are met with cynicism, she said, “upsets me as a scientist, as someone who cares about veterans.”
Hardie said the Gulf War veterans have felt profound frustration that the health community as a whole has only been treating affected veterans’ symptoms.
“If you have MS - ’here’s some Motrin.’ How long can you take nasal steroids without getting at root cause -- the brain damage?” he said. “The sad thing is scientists are saying in more precise terms what veterans were saying all along: We are sick, sickened by Gulf War service, and we need health care to help us.”