WASHINGTON -- Veterans Affairs Secretary Jesse Brown says there are "a massive number" of Persian Gulf War veterans suffering from mysterious ailments that may be linked to toxic environmental exposures.
The number of veterans seeking VA medical examinations for possible environment-related illnesses has more than doubled to nearly 4,000 since mid-March and is expected to continue to grow, Mr. Brown said yesterday.
More than 650,000 U.S. troops served in the Persian Gulf war. About 4,100 have been deemed by the VA to have service-related health problems, including 32 for environmentally related disabilities.
The secretary declined to speculate on specific causes of the thousands of undiagnosed illnesses. But breaking with past suggestions by some military medical officials, he said the ailments are not psychological.
Mr. Brown said he wants to know whether the sick veterans were suffering from multiple chemical sensitivity, a debilitating condition that some environmental physicians attribute to toxic exposures.
The Dallas Morning News reported last July that hundreds of Gulf War veterans were complaining to the military and VA of chronic fatigue, hair loss, skin rashes, bleeding gums, aching joints and other health problems. Many veterans said they suspected their illnesses were attributable to exposure to agents such as oil-fire smoke, fumes from leaded gasoline, or radiation from depleted-uranium artillery shells.
At the time, military officials called the health problems small and isolated. But since last summer there have been increasing reports both from discharged troops and active-duty personnel, some encompassing entire units.
Mr. Brown said he has concluded that the problem was a broad one. He said he is determined not to repeat the government's much-criticized response to veteran health complaints about atomic testing and exposure to Agent Orange.
"We have veterans there in Texas, a large group of them, we have them in Alabama and from all parts of the country complaining about generally the same thing," he said. "You cannot in good conscience just ignore that or chalk it up to the fact that they are suffering from some type of mass hysteria. I refuse to believe that."