US report links toxins to Gulf war syndrome
James Meikle, health correspondent
Saturday November 13, 2004, The Guardian
Troops who have fallen ill since the first Gulf war may have fallen victim to a ticking toxic timebomb, advisers to the US government said last night.
Scientists and veterans from the 1991 conflict went further than any previous official body either side of the Atlantic in identifying a complex chemical cocktail of nerve agents, pills to protect troops from those agents and multiple pesticides as a possible cause for their health problems.
Psychiatric illness, combat experience or other stresses from deployment did not explain ill health in the “vast majority” of 100,000 sick US veterans, according to the advisers’ report. On the contrary, evidence supported a “probable link” between the toxins and veterans’ illness.
Many troops had been exposed to substances belonging to a class of compounds that affected the nervous system and a “growing body of research” indicated that ill veterans differed from healthy ones “on objective measures of neuropathology and impairment.”
Animal studies indicated that exposure to nerve agents at levels too low to produce acute symptoms could result in “chronic adverse effects on the nervous and immune systems”. In addition, research suggested that if the neurotoxins were combined, they would be more poisonous.
Lord Morris of Manchester, who has campaigned for veterans both here and in the US, said: “This is a major development in unravelling the truth about thousands of still unexplained Gulf war illnesses. Scientific opinion in the US increasingly rejects the old medical consensus attributing the illness to wartime stress and psychiatric illness. I am calling for an urgent ministerial statement here in the UK.”
The report was published by the US department of veterans affairs. The committee responsible included Robert Haley, the scientist who has suggested that three types of Gulf-related cell damage exist in veterans, the worst associated with confusion and vertigo, another related to thinking problems, depression and sleep disorders, and a third to pain.
This is not accepted here although there is consideration as to whether some of the 6,000 British veterans who have complained of illness should undergo similar brain scans. The Ministry of Defence insists there is no Gulf war syndrome, and no more deaths among veterans than among troops who never went to the Gulf.
It accepts that many more veterans who served there report illness. Research led by Simon Wessley of King’s College, London, has suggested that people who had a battery of vaccinations and received them in the Gulf area, rather than before deployment, were more likely to report illness.
The new report says no further research into stress as a primary cause of the illnesses should be funded under federal Gulf war programmes. Instead, more work should be done to investigate the chronic effects of exposure to pesticides and nerve gas, as well as the effects of tablets taken to protect against nerve gas.
Earlier this year, a Congressional investigation blamed the bombing of weapons dumps during the war, or their destruction aftewards, for releasing chemical agents that might have spread wider than previously thought.
It said the destruction of weapons bunkers at Khamisayah in southern Iraq in March spread into Saudia Arabia and well into Iran. This is not accepted by the British government.
The research committee also wants the health of veterans’ children monitored, and will pursue further research into infections diseases, vaccines, smoke from burning oil wells and depleted uranium in anti-tank shells.