Twenty years on from the Persian Gulf War, and still the debate rages on over what exactly Gulf War syndrome is, and what is the root cause of the mysterious illness that has affected more than 250,000 veterans. Part of the blame has been placed on the Army's extensive use of depleted uranium, but controversial new research suggests that the bombing of Iraqi chemical weapons depots caused soldiers to be exposed to nerve agents like sarin gas.
The paper was published in the journal Neuroepidemiology by James Tuite and Dr. Robert Haley, who have published a number of previous papers on the topic, and presents evidence that neurotoxins released by the destruction of weapons depots could have been carried over 300 miles from Iraq to where troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia. Their conclusions runs counter to the Pentagon and other researchers, who argue that such a nerve agent plume couldn't have traveled that far.
From the NY Times:
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 Falluja high into the atmosphere, where winds whisked it hundreds of miles south to the Saudi border.
Once over the American 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 impact.
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.
The Times linked to a 1997 report in which the Pentagon admitted that as many as 100,000 of the 700,000 soldiers deployed in the war could have been exposed to nerve agents, but did not believe that such exposure could lead to long term effects, a position that the Pentagon reaffirmed upon the release of Tuite and Haley's new study.
There are two issues at hand here though. The new study argues that, first, more soldiers were exposed to chemical weapons than thought, and second, that those chemicals are linked with Gulf War syndrome. Based on meteorological reports and satellite imagery, their conclusion that a gas cloud could have carried to Saudi Arabia is plausible, especially with images published in the report that show yellow gas clouds over regions where troops were stationed. (While I'm no expert, the first thing I think of is that maybe it's sand, but again, plausible.)
The second assertion is a little more nuanced. Tuite and Haley reported that they found a direct correlation between soldiers who heard the chemical alarms and the severity of some Gulf War symptoms. From USA Today:
Veterans of suffering from Gulf War illness tend to fall in three categories:
• Syndrome 1, or cognitive and depression problems.
• Syndrome 2, or confusion ataxia, which is similar to early Alzheimer's disease.
• Syndrome 3, or severe chronic body pain.
Those with syndromes two and three had a highly significant correlation between alarms and symptoms, while Haley said Syndrome 1 does not appear to be connected. Haley called syndromes two and three "incapacitating," and said those veterans feel tired or just "not good" for no explainable reason. Recent research shows that Gulf War illness, the series of symptoms ranging from headaches to memory loss to chronic fatigue, is due to damage to the autonomic nervous systems. The autonomic nervous system controls automatic functions, such as breathing or a person's heartbeat.
Of course, those chemical alarms have been called false, and many of the troops there at the time report that they or others stopped putting on gas masks and chemical suits after the false alarm rumor spread. (At this point, whether or not those alarms were actually false is still a point of contention.) But the authors argue that long term, low exposure to sarin gas, which has previously not been considered, could produce Gulf War symptoms.
Gulf War syndrome is still a controversial issue partly because it represents a wide range of symptoms, and partly because researchers have yet to come to a consensus on what could have caused it. It doesn't look like Tuite and Haley's study is going to change dissenter's minds just yet–the Pentagon, for one, has not been swayed–but perhaps it will push researchers to look further in that direction. For the hundreds of thousands of service members dealing with Gulf War syndrome, figuring out what caused it is crucial to ensure that their health care needs are met.