For years, VA and Pentagon studies said it was stress. Now research points to a nerve agent released by U.S. destruction of an Iraqi hoard in 1991.
As benefits administrators, officials and politicians argue the worthiness of studies on Gulf War syndrome, researchers say they have no doubts they have found the root of the problem: sarin gas.
And they have advice for the up to 300,000 troops exposed to small doses of sarin in 1991: Don’t use bug spray, don’t smoke and don’t drink alcoholic beverages.
“Don’t do anything that would aggravate a normal, healthy body,” said Mohamed Abou-Donia, a Duke University neurobiology scientist who conducted two studies for the Army.
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Research released in early May showed that 13 soldiers exposed to small amounts of sarin gas in the 1991 Gulf War had 5 percent less white brain matter — connective tissue — than soldiers who had not been exposed.
A complementary report showed that 140 soldiers who were exposed had the fine motor skills of someone 20 years older, what researchers called a “direct correlation” to exposure.
The research was the work of Roberta White, chairwoman of the Department of Environmental Health at Boston University School of Public Health.
Classified as a nerve agent, the most toxic and rapidly acting of known chemical-warfare agents. Nerve agents are similar to certain kinds of pesticides called organophosphates in how they work and what kind of harmful effects they cause, but are much more potent.
Originally developed in 1938 in Germany as a pesticide. Sarin, also known as GB, is a clear, colorless and tasteless liquid that has no odor in its pure form. However, it can evaporate into a vapor and spread into the environment.
Source: Centers for Disease Control
Her study was noteworthy because it was paid for by the Veterans Affairs and Defense departments and used Pentagon data to triangulate locations of troops who were in the path of a huge sarin plume unleashed when U.S. forces destroyed an Iraqi chemical-weapons dump in Khamisiyah in March 1991.
The study also used new technology to look at troops’ brains.
Of the 700,000 service members who served in Desert Storm, 100,000 have reported mysterious symptoms. Until recently, each study commissioned by the VA and Pentagon concluded the problems were caused by stress and had no physical cause.
“It’s a bittersweet victory because people waited so long,” said Paul Sullivan, of Veterans for Common Sense, which filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to make public research documents that showed veterans were not making up their illnesses.
The debate over the issue goes back 16 years to when U.S. forces blew up the chemical-munitions dump in Khamisiyah, releasing a plume of sarin gas to which thousands of U.S. troops were exposed, something the Pentagon denied until 1997.
As more research was done and as veterans sought details through the FOIA, scientists showed that Desert Storm vets exposed to sarin were at higher risk for brain cancer. And the veterans eventually showed that the Pentagon knew up to 300,000 service members had breathed in small doses of the toxic fumes.
List of units exposed to sarin in the 1991 Gulf War:
In 1999, working on behalf of the RAND Corp., Beatrice Golomb, a professor of internal medicine at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine, reviewed every study she could find on the issue.
She found a link between symptoms of Gulf War veterans and their exposure to sarin, pyridostigmine bromide (PB) and bug repellent, all of which overstimulate muscles by inhibiting a chemical that signals muscles to stop moving.
In large enough amounts, PB is harmful, but in small doses it acts to prevent nerve agents from overstimulating muscles; the effects of PB are temporary and reversible.
About 250,000 troops were given PB during the Gulf War.
Exposure to sarin alone would be problematic enough. But for Gulf War veterans, exposure to sarin and PB and/or bug repellent may have been what ushered in Gulf War syndrome.
Abou-Donia’s research showed the combination of nerve agents, PB, bug spray and stress could cause any of those chemicals — and any lurking viruses — to cross the blood-brain barrier, causing other problems.
He said he has no doubt there are other long-term effects of low doses of sarin, citing chronic fatigue, muscle weakness and fibromyalgia.
To Abou-Donia, the connection between sarin gas and Gulf War syndrome became clear after terrorists hit a Tokyo subway with sarin in 1995. Hospital workers who never were in the subway but who worked with sickened passengers came down with the same symptoms reported by Gulf War vets.