Scientist casts doubt on findings of his gulf war study Panel lacked information on nerve gas incident

December 10, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEW SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- The scientist who led a 1994 Pentagon study that discounted links between chemical weapons and the illnesses reported by veterans of the Persian Gulf war said yesterday that some of the findings might have to be revised in light of newly disclosed evidence from the Pentagon -- evidence the Defense Department did not share with him at the time of his investigation.

The scientist, Joshua Lederberg, a Nobel Prize-winning geneticist and the former president of Rockefeller University, said the Pentagon had never told him about an incident shortly after the war in which American combat engineers blew up an Iraqi ammunition depot that contained chemical weapons, potentially exposing thousands of troops to nerve gas.

He said in an interview that as a result of the newly disclosed evidence, there should be an intensified effort to determine whether low doses of nerve gas could cause long-term illnesses.

The comments by Lederberg throw into question many of the conclusions of a study that the Pentagon had cited for more than two years in insisting there was no evidence that Americans had been exposed to Iraqi nerve gas or other chemical weapons during the war, let alone that the troops had been made ill by the poisons.

In addition, Lederberg said the panel had not been informed that Czech soldiers who had detected chemical weapons during the war had been so concerned about the possibility of chemical exposure that they had immediately pulled on gas masks and other protective equipment, even as American soldiers remained unprotected.

"If I had it all to do over again," he said in an interview, "I would have spent more time and effort digging out the details." Asked why the Pentagon had not shared some of the information with his panel, Lederberg replied, "I was not operating on the presumption of malice, but maybe after this experience, I want to be a little more cautious about that."

A Pentagon spokesman, Bryan Whitman, denied that any information had been withheld from Lederberg's panel. "There was never any attempt to withhold any information," he said. "They had full access to everything."

But Lederberg said, "We didn't get all the information, and I don't know where it was."

He said he did not necessarily believe that anyone within the Defense Department had attempted to mislead his panel, the Defense Science Task Force on Persian Gulf War Health Effects.

Lederberg's comments came as three former Army researchers said that research they conducted for the Pentagon in the 1970s suggested a connection between low levels of nerve gas -- doses so small they might not result in immediate physical symptoms -- and the sorts of health problems reported by gulf war veterans.

The researchers -- Dr. Frank H. Duffy, associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School; Dr. James L. Burchfiel, professor of neurology at the University of Rochester; and Dr. Peter H. Bartels, professor of pathology at the University of Arizona -- said in interviews that the Pentagon seemed intent on ignoring or dismissing their evidence.

Their research, which studied the effects of low doses of sarin on both humans and primates, showed that the exposure resulted in changes -- perhaps permanent -- in brain waves, which could possibly be connected with chronic fatigue, memory loss and sleep disturbances. Those symptoms are among those commonly reported by gulf war veterans.

Pub Date: 12/10/96

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