V.A. to Study Toxins' Effects From 1991 Gulf War
By SCOTT SHANE
Published: November 13, 2004
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 12 - The government will spend $15 million over the
next year for research on the illnesses of veterans of the 1991 Persian
Gulf war, the secretary of veterans affairs, Anthony J. Principi,
announced Friday. He said it would concentrate on the role of
neurotoxins, and not the stress and psychological conditions often
implicated as a cause of the veterans' health complaints.
Mr. Principi also said the department would establish a research center
to develop treatments for gulf war illnesses.
"The men and women who fought there deserve our undivided attention to
their questions, to their symptoms, to their futures," he said. "They
have been frustrated far too long."
He said his decision was guided by the findings of a committee of
scientists and veterans that he appointed in 2002 to study the ailments
of thousands of servicemen and women that persisted after the war.
In a report released at a news conference here, the panel, the Research
Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, broke with earlier
study groups by pointing to chemical exposures during the war, not the
effects of combat stress, as the primary cause of what has sometimes
been called Gulf War Syndrome.
The committee found a "probable link" between veterans' illnesses and
neurotoxins, possibly including Iraqi nerve agents. That conclusion has
heartened veterans, who resented earlier studies suggesting a
psychiatric cause for their problems, but it disturbed some scientists
who do not believe it is supported by solid data.
Mr. Principi said he became interested in the issue in 2001 after the
Texas billionaire and former presidential candidate Ross Perot
introduced him to a Dallas epidemiologist, Dr. Robert W. Haley, who has
long argued for the neurotoxin theory. When he found that Clinton
administration officials had never appointed a gulf war illness research
panel, as required by 1998 legislation, Mr. Principi named the research
committee and made Dr. Haley a member.
Mr. Perot attended the news conference and spoke passionately about what
he considered the government's previous unjustified insistence that the
veterans' illnesses were psychological in origin.
"Our government has been in total denial," said Mr. Perot, who has long
championed veterans' causes. He said the strategy had been to blame
veterans' ills on "stress, stress, stress."
Lea Steele, a Kansas State University epidemiologist and scientific
director of the committee, said its conclusions were supported by an
accumulation of recent research, including 15 animal studies since 2000
showing neurological damage from low-level exposure to nerve agents.
She said many soldiers serving in the war were exposed to three sources
of neurotoxins: Iraqi sarin nerve gas dispersed when weapons caches were
destroyed; pesticides and insect repellents used by American troops on
skin, clothing and tents where they camped; and the drug pyridostigmine
bromide, given to troops to protect them against nerve gas.
Ms. Steele said that nearly a third of veterans of the gulf war report
long-lasting health problems like chronic pain; difficulty with balance
and memory; and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease.
She said the stress theory was unpersuasive. "This was a brief war," she
said. "Most gulf war veterans were not engaged in combat."
Some other scientists who have studied the veterans' illnesses reacted
with skepticism to the panel's findings.
"I have followed this issue closely, and I have not seen any evidence
that chemical exposures are responsible for many symptoms of illness in
Gulf War veterans," said Dr. John C. Bailar, a retired University of
Chicago health studies professor now at the National Academy of
Sciences. Dr. Bailar was chairman of an earlier study group in 1996.
Dr. Stephen L. Joseph, a former top Defense Department medical officer
who oversaw health evaluations of more than 30,000 gulf war veterans,
said he was not persuaded that there was a neurotoxin link, partly
because it was impossible to say which veterans had been exposed.
Dr. Joseph said that the Defense Department has estimated that 100,000
American troops were nearby when an arms depot at Khamisiyah, Iraq,
containing some sarin nerve gas was destroyed in March 1991.
"Because there were 100,000 people around Khamisiyah doesn't mean all of
those people were exposed," he said. "I don't see the epidemiology."