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Findings Mixed On Gulf War Hazards

The Hartford Courant
September 08, 2000

A study of the scientific literature of the hazards faced by Persian Gulf War veterans reveals insufficient evidence to link the chemicals to long-term illnesses suffered by hundreds of thousands veterans, says a national Institute of Medicine report released Thursday.

An institute committee said there is limited data available to gauge the long-term health effects of low level exposure to the warfare nerve agent sarin; the anti-nerve agent pill, pyridostigmine bromide (PB); the shell hardener for ammunition and armor, depleted uranium, and the vaccines to prevent anthrax and botulism. The panel will now turn to scientific studies of other chemicals the veterans were exposed to during what is known as one of the dirtiest environmental wars ever.

Most of the studies the committee scrutinized involved exposures in occupational settings, terrorist attacks, and clinical trials. Only a small number of the studies looked at veterans who may have been exposed to hazardous agents while serving in the Gulf War.

Congress mandated the committee's study of 33 hazards after a four-year investigation of gulf war illnesses by a House Committee, chaired by U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Fourth District, criticized government care for war veterans. The report simply confirms part of what the committee found, Shays said Thursday.

"Gulf veterans were exposed to toxic agents during the war; due to poor military records during the war, levels of exposure are not known, and there is need for more research on Gulf War illnesses,'' he said.

Some of the veterans and their families, including those in Connecticut, expressed frustration with the findings 9 years after the war ended in light of all of the serious sicknesses they and others have experienced.

Since the war, at least 6,584 of the 690,000 Americans who served have died and 186,600 have applied for disability compensation for war-related injuries or illnesses, including various heart and neurological diseases and cancers, federal officials have said. The average age of all U.S. service members during the war was 28.

"Nine and a half years later, how many dead veterans have we got? There are thousands,'' said Windsor Locks resident Diane Gates-Dulka. "How many of these veterans are still sick and getting progressively worse? Now the
doctors don't have a clue how to treat them, and they are out there waiting for answers, waiting for help. I don't think they care any more what did it. They just want to stay alive and be able to function and to get healthy.''

Joseph Dulka II, her husband, also of Windsor Locks, a 15-year veteran of the National Guard's Military Police, died of pancreatic cancer Aug. 28, 1994, three years after the war. He was 37, almost 20 years younger than the average pancreatic cancer victim.

Gates-Dulka believes he died from among other exposures, breathing the benzene-based insecticide, lindane, he and others sprayed on prisoners to delouse them. Gates-Dulka is still fighting for government compensation for health costs for herself and her two children, one of whom was born with a deformity that may have been caused by his father's exposures.

"We'd like to give veterans and their families definitive answers, but the evidence simply is not strong enough," said the committee's chairman, Dr. Harold C. Sox Jr., professor and chairman of the department of medicine at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire. "Without data on the levels of exposure in the Persian Gulf theater, answers will remain elusive."

One of the biggest impediments to reaching any definitive conclusions, said Sox, is limited knowledge of the long-term effects of the types of hazardous exposures the veterans experienced. The institute’s panel of medical experts, whose inquiry is continuing, is calling for additional studies on the hazards it considered.

The panel did look at findings by a group of doctors at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, led by Robert W. Haley, that showed it is likely Gulf War veterans did indeed suffer long-term neurological damage from low level exposures to sarin. "His work is intriguing. It raises interesting questions, but it needs to be strengthened,'' said Charles Phelps, provost at the University of Rochester, a committee member.

The health panel said there is limited evidence from three studies, not involving gulf war veterans, that might suggest a link between long-term health effects and exposure to sarin at levels great enough to cause an immediate, intense reaction. But alternative explanations for this link could not be ruled out, said the panel.

But Patrick Eddington, a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency who has written a book called, "Gassed In The Gulf,’’ said he believes the committee should have looked closer at war related documents.

"Iraqi military manuals dealing with chem-bio warfare explicitly talk about the benefits of using low-dose nerve agent attacks to increase casualities over time," he said. "A 1988 Iraqi Air Force manual explicitly states that ‘[Nerve agents] have a cumulative effect; if small doses are used repeatedly on a target, the damage can be very severe.’ The Iraqi's would not have made such a statement in a military manual unless they already had the medical data to back up the claim."

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