Phony gulf war syndrome

October 27, 1996|By Michael Fumento

GULF WAR Gassed 15,000?" ran a banner headline atop the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. Ah, the old newspaper trick of using a question mark to get away with anything. How about: "Ross Perot: Space Alien?"

Actually, that last one may be true. But we can say without a doubt that absolutely no allied troops were "gassed" in the gulf. Furthermore, reports that as many as 100,000 of our soldiers were "exposed" to Iraqi nerve gas are simply meaningless.

Yet many consider this the smoking gun proving that the huge panoply of symptoms known as Gulf War Syndrome, of which I've counted over 80, is real.

What "exposure" means is this. In March 1991, near a place in Iraq called Khamisiya, soldiers from the U.S. 37th Engineer Battalion blew up a huge bunker complex.

Some shells in one of those buildings apparently contained sarin gas. Assuming that some were cracked open in the blast, the contents joined a massive cloud of smoke and dust thrown high into the air. This cloud then dissipated, eventually covering such a wide area that perhaps 100,000 soldiers were below it.

Of course, as it spread, the amount of chemicals in it continually thinned and degraded to nothingness.

Likewise, pour enough arsenic to kill one person into a reservoir serving 100,000 people and you could claim they were all "exposed" to a deadly poison. It just doesn't mean anything.

The most important fact is that no soldier during the war reported any acute symptoms of nerve-gas poisoning. Not at Khamisiyah, not elsewhere.

I interviewed numerous soldiers from the 37th Engineer Battalion (I served in its sister unit, the 27th Engineers) who were only three miles from the blast. All of them said they felt fine at the time.

So what we're being told is that exposure so slight that nobody even knew about it at the time is now causing terrible, widespread harm. We are also told there's no scientific evidence one way or another as to whether this is possible. WRONG. The Persian Gulf Illnesses Investigation Team, the same Department of Defense-appointed group that first posted the news about Khamisiyah on the Internet, has also released a "Report on Possible Effects of Organophosphate 'Low-Level' Nerve Agent Exposure."

Sarin gas is an organophosphate. The report states clearly on page one: "The concept of low-agent exposure is not realistic. These are highly volatile substances and disappear quickly."

Furthermore, it says, "It is hard to imagine an open-air situation in which low concentrations would not disappear to zero levels within moments."

Not days, not hours, but moments. Thus the odds of even the 37th Engineers receiving a low-level dose of sarin is virtually nil.

As for those other 15,000 or 100,000, were it possible for something to be less than nil, then that would describe their exposure.

The report then surveys the scientific literature on nerve-gas exposure. Among these was a test on over 1,400 subjects exposed to a range of gas from low symptom-less doses to those that caused immediate illness. A National Academy of Sciences panel concluded there were no long-term effects for any of the subjects.

Another report, on 297 cases of accidental exposure among workers manufacturing nerve agents, found that about a fifth initially had symptoms but that all "eventually returned to work fully functional."

The investigation team notes the improbability of "illnesses from very low levels of exposures in the presence of overwhelming evidence that those illnesses do not occur with high and longer levels of exposure. This would be incompatible with empirical science and the principles of biology and pharmacology."

It concludes that low-level nerve gas exposure "cannot be reasonably advanced as having a role in Gulf War illnesses."

This document is not difficult to obtain. It can be found on the Defense Department's "Gulflink" home page (http://www.dtic.-dla.mil/gulflink/), which any reporter covering the issue knows about.

Gulflink has been cited in stories in the New York Times, the Associated Press, Gannett News Service, Reuters and, yes, the Rocky Mountain News.

But a Nexis computer database search has found the team's report cited in no stories. One can only conclude these reporters have decided that you do not need to know about it.

I have also interviewed researchers who studied World War I vets made deathly ill by exposure to enemy nerve gases, including sarin. Yet everyone who didn't soon die fully recovered, experiencing none of the symptoms that fall under the heading of Gulf War Syndrome. Nobody has bothered to tell you that, either.

And rarely do you hear of studies finding that gulf vets' illnesses, miscarriages among their wives and birth defects among their children are suffered at rates any greater than rates in the civilian population.

During the gulf war, the Pentagon tightly controlled what the media were allowed to report. Now the media are even more tightly controlling what they want you to know about this enigma known as Gulf War Syndrome.

But they certainly sell lots of newspapers, while also needlessly scaring the hell out of 700,000 vets who served their country in its hour of need.

Michael Fumento, who served in the U.S. Army in 1978-82, is the science correspondent for Reason, a Los Angeles-based commentary magazine, for which he is writing a longer article on Gulf War Syndrome.

Pub Date: 10/27/96

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