U.S. eyes illnesses of Gulf War vets Possible chemical origin to be probed

November 02, 1993|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- The federal government is launching a pilot program to determine whether a range of illnesses suffered by thousands of Persian Gulf War veterans may have been triggered by exposure to chemical weapons used by Iraq.

The government expects to take the program nationwide once doctors develop a regimen of neurological and other exams to best detect exposure to chemical agents.

The testing program was sparked by the Defense Department's acknowledgment last week that Czech troops detected low levels of chemical agents during the 1991 conflict, Veterans Affairs Secretary Jesse Brown said yesterday.

"Our efforts to resolve health problems among Persian Gulf veterans must now be accelerated and expanded," Mr. Brown said.

As many as 4,000 veterans of the conflict blame their fatigue, headaches, diarrhea, irritability, forgetfulness and infirmities on exposure to chemical or biological poisons during the war.

About 6,000 other veterans of the 541,000 who served in the gulf have complained about other health problems since their service there. Once the testing program is expanded, the VA plans to review whether some of these veterans should be tested for exposure to chemical agents.

A spokesman said yesterday that the Defense Department has not yet formally concluded that Iraqi forces used chemical agents during the war. But lawmakers said last week that defense officials told them that the Defense Department "cannot discount" the Czech finding that chemical warfare agents were detected on the battlefield.

Mr. Brown said the VA has "never ruled out the possibility of exposure to chemical warfare agents, despite the fact that, until recently, the Defense Department had assured us there was no evidence that chemical agents had been detected in the Persian Gulf region."

During the opening days of the war, U.S. troops were outfitted with gas masks and protective gear because Iraq threatened to unleash "an unusual force" that "will astonish our enemies." In the late 1980s, Iraq bombed Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq with mustard gas, killing more than 4,000.

Shortly after the threat was issued, an Iraqi Frog missile, capable of carrying warheads containing more than one kind of poison, landed near an ammunition-supply unit close to the Saudi-Kuwaiti border. About 85 of the unit's 110 members have fallen ill since the war.

In addition, since a Frog missile landed near a Navy construction unit, 100 of the 725 members have become sick, according to TC recent investigation by Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr., D-Mich.

Last July, the Czech government said that some of its Gulf War troops detected airborne traces of mustard gas and the deadly chemical agent Sarin after allied air strikes against Iraqi arsenals.

Czech sensors detected the gas in January 1991 near Al-Jubayl, Saudi Arabia, about the same time that members of the nearby Navy "Seabee" unit reported an explosion that blew an ammonia-smelling mist across their encampment.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby, D-Ala., revealed last week that a doctor at the VA Medical Center in Tuskegee, Ala., had diagnosed a Navy veteran from that unit as suffering from the effects of chemical or biological exposure.

However, VA officials later said that the doctor lacked any proof to support his opinion.

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