Paper ties nerve agents to Gulf War ailments
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 U.S. troops staged in Saudi Arabia.
The paper, published in the journal Neuroepidemiology, tries to rebut the long-standing Pentagon position, supported by many scientists, that neurotoxins, particularly sarin gas, could not have carried far enough to sicken U.S. 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 Fallujah high into the atmosphere, where winds whisked it hundreds of miles south to the Saudi border.
Once over the U.S. 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 effect.
Though chemical weapons detectors sounded alarms in those encampments in the days after the January 1991 bombing raids, they were viewed as false by many troops, the authors report.
But a significant number of medical experts have cast doubts on the sarin gas theory over the years, and several said Thursday 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.
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,” he 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.