VA to keep tabs on Gulf veterans Registry is planned to avoid mistakes of Agent Orange case.

August 04, 1992|By Boston Globe

In an effort to avert a controversy like that surrounding Agent Orange, federal officials plan a Persian Gulf Registry to address questions about health problems being attributed to the Kuwaiti oil fires and other illnesses being reported by scores of Gulf War veterans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has asked Congress to create the registry and appropriate about $1 million to track the health of those who served in the gulf.

"It's a way for us to monitor," said Terry Jemison, a VA spokesman.

The VA and other federal agencies are already compiling data about troop movements and air quality in different regions of the gulf to help determine which troops faced the greatest potential exposure to toxic fumes. Officials said that is the kind of critical information missing in the investigation of Agent Orange, a defoliant used during the Vietnam War that has been linked to cancer, birth defects and other health problems.

A range of health problems have been reported since the Gulf pTC War ended early in 1991. Some veterans have reported vague symptoms, such as continuing fatigue, that they attribute to inhaling smoke from burning oil wells or fumes from diesel fuel. Others have reported suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and some have linked miscarriages to vaccinations given to troops before they were sent to the gulf.

The Department of Defense and other federal agencies say they are investigating reports thoroughly but have found little evidence of adverse health effects.

Spokesmen at the American Legion's headquarters in Washington say they have received complaints from at least 35 people who served in the gulf about mysterious illnesses with nonspecific symptoms. Some of the callers blame their problems on exposure to fumes and smoke from the 611 oil wells the Iraqis set on fire during the war.

"The symptoms are very broad," said Steve Robertson, lobbyist for the Legion. "One common symptom everybody has is fatigue." Those who served in areas where the smoke was heaviest also suffered respiratory problems, he said.

Mr. Robertson said he is "very optimistic" the Defense Department will be willing to bring in private environmental health specialists to assess the complaints about toxic fumes.

Mr. Robertson, a National Guardsman, is among those who attribute persistent fatigue to his service in the war.

"I was very athletic prior to deployment. I was playing in two basketball leagues at the same time," he said. "Now, I have to cut my yard in segments . . . I was cleaning out the garage and my 5-year-old daughter asked me to show her how to jump rope. I jumped rope for two minutes and I ended up having to sleep for three hours . . . ."

A Defense Department spokeswoman said the department has conducted studies and continues to study reports of smoke exposure and other clusters of health problems that may be gulf-related, ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to a parasitic infection called leishmaniasis, from possible higher rates of miscarriages to multiple symptoms reported by 120 Indiana reservists. In all, 570,000 troops served during the Gulf War.

"The Department of Defense is very concerned about the health of soldiers, both during the war and after the war," said spokeswoman Susan Hansen.

A Navy study of 2,700 Marines found no serious health effects as a result of smoke from oil well fires, although it did find slightly elevated levels of respiratory symptoms among those who were closest to the fires.

About 9 percent of Gulf War military personnel have reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and as many as 34 percent appeared to experience other forms of psychological stress after their return, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Those with the most combat exposure reported the more severe symptoms.

Jessica Wolfe, associate director of the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder at the Boston VA Medical Center, said an ongoing study of 3,000 New England-area military personnel deployed through Fort Devens should provide some "pretty important" information about the condition.

The Department of Defense has received reports of about 28 cases of the parasitic infection leishmaniasis, none of them life-threatening, according to Ms. Hansen.

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