Studies track Gulf War illness

Scientists believe some Gulf War illness was caused by exposure of U.S. troops to nerve gas.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | BALTIMORE | December 30, 2002



"This is sort of the final link in the chain of evidence that connects brain damage in Gulf War veterans with sarin nerve gas."

—Dr. Robert Haley


Recent studies investigating the effects of low levels of sarin nerve gas on animals appear to confirm the theory that some forms of Gulf War illness may have been caused by the exposure of U.S. troops to nerve gas.

Preliminary findings from one of these studies, conducted by the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense in Aberdeen, Md., indicate exposure to low levels of sarin may cause brain damage in guinea pigs.

"The results suggest that depression of [cholinesterase] activity following low-dose sarin exposure may lead to persistent neurochemical or pathological changes that influence behavior," according to an abstract of the study presented at the November meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

This study and others corroborate the work of Dr. Robert Haley, an epidemiologist at University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, who has been studying the effects of low-dose sarin on human beings for almost a decade.

Haley has published several studies showing a direct correlation between low-level sarin exposure and permanent brain stem damage in some Gulf War veterans.

Haley cites another study, conducted by researchers at the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute at the University of New Mexico, which also finds that rats, exposed to low levels of sarin, suffer brain damage, particularly when these rats are also been exposed to a hot environment, similar to what troops would have encountered in the Persian Gulf.

"They're both showing the same thing," Haley said. "This is sort of the final link in the chain of evidence that connects brain damage in Gulf War veterans with sarin nerve gas. None of these pieces of evidence is conclusive in itself. But when you add them up, there's strong evidence."

Haley, however, said he does not mean to imply that all the symptoms reported by sick Gulf War veterans are caused by sarin.

Haley also lends credence to the so-called "cocktail theory," which holds that a variety of substances -- pesticides, depleted uranium, anthrax vaccines, and petrochemical fumes -- may be responsible for the ill-health effects noted by almost a quarter of the 700,000 U.S. troops who were stationed in the Persian Gulf during Desert Storm.

Another Army study is looking into the combined effects of both low-level sarin and pyridostigmine bromide (PB) exposure in rats. PB is an anti-nerve gas pill that was given to troops during the war, and which some suspect may have impaired their health.

The power of PON

Scientific studies of Gulf War illnesses have been expanding considerably in the last few years, and received a big boost Oct. 28 when the Department of Veterans Affairs announced it would spend $40 million in FY 2004 on further research, particularly on the neurological basis of some of these illnesses.

Haley, for one, is impressed by the change, since he began his research without any support from the DoD or the VA. His original studies were funded by H. Ross Perot.

At that time, he said, almost all government research into Gulf War illnesses was concentrated on "combat stress," a focus that Haley thought absurd.

But the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses (OSAGWI) -- now the Deployment Health Support Directorate (DHSD) -- sharply criticized the validity of Haley's research for years.

"For years they called Haley a witch doctor. I know because I was there. I've got it on videotape," said Kirt Love, director of the Desert Storm Battle Registry. "They had it in for Haley. They've done everything they can to blackball this guy."

"Dr. Haley was publicly ridiculed on Capitol Hill, "added Steve Robinson, director of the National Gulf War Resource Center. "Now he has survived, and his science has been proven to be true, and his science is going to get funded."

Bernard Rostker, former undersecretary of the Army and head of OSAGWI, at a public hearing on Tuesday, July 13, 1999, called into question the basic logic of Haley's work.

"On various occasions Dr. Haley has also cited that since he's found [brain] damage there must have been sarin on the battlefield and therefore there was sarin on the battlefield," Rostker said. "That circular logic escapes me."

But to Haley the explanation is simple, and there's no circular logic involved.

It all has to do with a substance called paraoxonase Q, or PON Q, a chemical in the human bloodstream that serves only one function -- the elimination of sarin nerve gas.

Haley has no idea why such a chemical exists naturally; he speculates that it may have served some vestigial function in the annals of evolution. But that is beside the point, he said. The fact is, PON Q exists, and by studying blood levels of this chemical, a scientist can learn important information.

Haley's studies indicate that troops who have naturally high levels of PON Q in their bloodstream had relatively normal brains. The sick Gulf vets, however, all had naturally low levels of PON Q. These are soldiers who served in the same units, and would have been exposed to the same environmental and chemical conditions.

According to Haley, there is only one scientific conclusion: the troops he studied were exposed to sarin. No other theory could explain why the vets with high PON Q levels did not get sick.

So where did the sarin come from?

Robinson, who used to work for Rostker and OSAGWI, said the official word from the Pentagon, until 1997, was that no chemical or biological weapons were present in the Persian Gulf theatre. Robinson said he knew better -- the very organization he worked for was deliberately lying to the public.

"Science is proving them wrong," he said.

The DoD has since come to recognize possible low level sarin release from an Iraqi bunker at Khamisiyah. But neither Haley, nor Robinson, nor Love, think that this one site can explain all the sick vets.

At the abovementioned 1999 hearing, Rostker said, "So I don't know the source of the contamination that Dr. Haley relates to...that is another troublesome aspect of Dr. Haley's work. We just can't find with any degree of certainty the source of the contamination that he cites as being present."

Haley, however, has a very definite idea of where the sarin could have come from, and he thinks that if Rostker listened to Czech and French intelligence reports, he might find "the source of the contamination."

On both Jan. 20 and 24 of 1991, Czech units detected low levels of sarin drifting from a storage facilty in Iraq. French units independently confirmed ambient sarin on Jan. 24.

"[The DoD] would prefer that this not be discussed," Haley said.

'A new paradigm of warfare'

Both Robinson and Love are happy with the turn that recent research is taking, but both are concerned that a focus on the effects of sarin might prevent research into other possible causes.

"The studies demonstrate that if good science is applied and researchers are allowed to look at the potential problems, then researchers will find an answer," Robinson said. "That doesn't mean that the other exposures are any less important."

Future research must not lose sight of other possible culprits, he said, such as depleted uranium, the PB pill, experimental drugs, anthrax vaccines, pesticides and the petrochemicals given off by burning oil wells.

"Exposures are part of the reason and causal factors of why [Gulf veterans] are sick," he said. "That's something we've been trying to make people to understand for the last 11 years."

Love, who himself suffers from an undiagnosed Gulf War illness, is heartened by the new studies because they are "going to be harder for DoD to dispute."

And that's a pattern that Love says he has seen in his activism for sick Gulf vets: a pattern of deception and stonewalling on the part of both the DoD and VA to prevent any comprehensive research into Gulf War illnesses.

"That's their job," Love said, "just to stiff arm us and just keep us at bay."

And both men are particularly concerned that researchers are just beginning to understand what happened a decade ago, as U.S. troops are once again deploying for the Persian Gulf.

"It's very interesting that it's kind of all coming together right on the precipice of another Gulf War," Robinson said.

One thing that most Americans don't realize, he said, is that the age of conventional warfare died during the last Gulf War, and that today's conflicts will entail the exposure of our troops to dangerous substances, the effects of which have not been completely studied.

"We're in a new paradigm of warfare," he said. "And we're not talking about it. [Chemical exposure] is just as dangerous as bullets and bombs, but it's just harder to see. And you don't have to die from it to feel the effects."

Love is concerned today's soldiers will not be adequately protected against what they may soon face in "this industrial wasteland they call Iraq."

He claims that some of the protective suits to be provided to the rank and file aren't really much better than the ones in the first Gulf War, and he cites a General Accounting Office report from Oct. 10 that concluded up to 70 percent of these suits were defective.

"I think we're going to have a lot of unnecessary deaths. What I'm fighting for right now is the medical and civil rights of veterans," he said. "I don't think it's right that they're sending these troops out and putting such a low dollar value on them."


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