Report is unable to explain gulf war syndrome

June 24, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- A medical panel reported to the Pentagon yesterday that it could find no single explanation for Persian Gulf war syndrome, the mystery illness that has struck thousands of veterans from the 1991 conflict with Iraq.

"There was nothing we could pin down. It just remains out there as a mystery," said Dr. Joshua Lederburg, a physician at New York's Rockefeller University and the 1958 Nobel Prize winner for medicine, who chaired the panel charged with identifying the cause of the unexplained illnesses afflicting veterans.

Some gulf war veterans have complained of fatigue, rashes, muscle and joint pains, loss of memory, shortness of breath, diarrhea, chest pain and other ailments that have defied diagnostic and laboratory explanation. They have blamed their ailments on exposure to chemical or biological agents during the war.

"There is no question they are sick," said Dr. Lederburg. "That's not the issue. The issue is what the cause was, and more importantly, what to do about it, how to treat them."

As the report was released, Deputy Defense Secretary John M. Deutch, aware that activist veterans would likely allege the existence of a cover-up, said: "We firmly believe there are service men and women who are ill as a result of this gulf experience. . . . Our top priority has got to be, and is, prompt, humane and compassionate treatment."

In addition to the panel's investigation, the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs are conducting a clinical investigation into all known cases of the syndrome to try to establish whether there might yet be a war-connected cause.

The Pentagon also announced yesterday that it was releasing thousands of previously classified documents from Operation Desert Storm "in order to provide as much data as possible to help answer questions and alleviate the concerns of those who fear they may have been exposed to chemical or biological agents."

The Pentagon panel -- officially the Defense Science Board's Task Force on Persian Gulf War Health -- concluded that:

* There is insufficient medical evidence to support the concept of a "gulf war syndrome."

* U.S. forces were not exposed to chemical or biological agents, eitherfrom direct attack by Iraq or from U.S. bombing raids on Iraqi chemical weapons depots. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia did not have chemical weapons stockpiles, according to the report.

* More investigation is required "even to verify" that the symptoms are connected to Operation Desert Storm rather than elicited by widespread publicity, and to check whether the incidence of the complaints among gulf war veterans is out of line with similar symptoms in the civilian population.

Richard Haines, a gulf war activist, expressed outrage at the findings.

"There were all kinds of exposures and rates of exposure," he said. "In the desert, if you don't have trees and hills to slow these things down, it is going to spread in very differing concentrations. It's going to spread far and wide. The concentrations were far and beyond the levels of what is going to make you sick. They are covering this up."

Dr. Lederberg said that it was "very difficult" to distinguish the veterans' symptoms from chronic fatigue syndrome. Previous wars had produced "comparable histories," with different names being given to post-war syndromes, including "soldier's heart," "combat fatigue" and "shell shock."

"It's something we should come to expect as a fairly routine matter," he said.

The gulf war, he said, did not expose U.S. troops to prolonged battle tension, but it did place them under different forms of physical stress. According to the panel's report, these may have included exposure to:

* Paint used on vehicles to make them resistant to chemical agents, which may have been applied without proper respiratory protection.

* Pesticides, which can cause adverse side effects.

* Alcohol substitutes ingested by "a population that was abruptly deprived of alcohol." * Fallout from oil well fires, although few soldiers were exposed to concentrations of pollutants for long periods.

* Powdery sand, which caused respiratory problems for some troops;

* Vaccination against anthrax and other toxins, and precautions against nerve agents. But, said the report: "No evidence has been found to implicate any of these measures in the unexplained medical complaints in gulf war participants."

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