New research concludes there is sufficient evidence to link troops' exposure to certain chemicals with then subsequently developing Gulf War Syndrome.
In the 17 years following the first Gulf War a large number of veterans have experienced a range of symptoms that have come to be known as Gulf War Syndrome.
Research into what causes the syndrome has been limited but a number of possibilities have been suggested including vaccines, chemical exposures, and combat stress. Similarities with other poorly understood syndromes such as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and multiple chemical sensitivity have also been noted.
This week a US Congress-appointed committee released their findings after analysing more than 100 studies relating to Gulf War illnesses. The findings are being seen as going a long way towards vindicating the thousands of veterans who say their ill health is physical in nature and related to chemicals they were exposed to during Operation Desert Storm.
According to the research a third of veterans of the conflict experienced fatigue, muscle or joint pain, sleeping problems, rashes and breathing troubles amongst other symptoms.
The researchers also concluded that there was a clear link to exposures to specific kinds of chemicals. The chemicals identified were an anti-nerve gas agent given to troops, pesticides used to control sand-flies, and the nerve-gas sarin that troops may have been exposed to during the demolition of a weapons depot.
Dr Beatrice Golomb, the committee's chief scientist, revealed that some people are at particularly risk from such chemicals due to genetic variations which impair enzyme function. When exposed these people run a much higher risk for developing symptoms and disease.
Those affected by Gulf War Syndrome and other forms of 'environmental illness' have for years maintained that this was the case. Toxicologists may tell us that a certain dose of a single toxin is safe but what is important in the real world is how each individual responds to the toxins both individually and in combination.
Dr. Golomb singled out a group of drugs called acetylcholinesterase (AChE) inhibitors which were given to soldiers for the purpose of protecting them against nerve gas. Ironically it turns out that this practice may have been a greater risk for the soldiers than the chance of nerve gas attack. AChE inhibitors such as Pyridostigmine bromide (PB) block the enzyme which breaks down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and it is thought it may lead to dysfunction of the nervous system and the symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome.
"Convergent evidence now strongly links a class of chemicals - acetyl cholinesterase inhibitors - to illness in Gulf War veterans," Dr Golomb reported.
It is thought that hundreds of thousands of troops were given the drugs prior to the first Gulf War. Dr. Golomb and colleagues looked at more than 70 studies on Gulf War syndrome and acetylcholinesterase inhibitors.
They found that 18 of the 21 epidemiological studies looking at chronic health problems in Gulf War veterans showed a link to at least one kind of acetylcholinesterase inhibitor exposure.
Further evidence that exposure to the chemicals implicated here come from studies that found symptoms similar to those reported by Gulf War veterans in farmworkers exposed to pesticides and victims of the 1995 sarin gas attacks in Japan. Some of these studies also found those who got sick had the enzyme abnormalities identified in troops suffering from Gulf War Syndrome.
Much has been made of psychological factors in symptoms reported by Gulf War Veterans but Dr. Golomb dismissed the assertion that they play a significant role.
"Psychological stressors are inadequate to account for the excess illness seen," she said. Unlike the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Operation Desert Storm in 1991 only lasted a matter of days.
Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences