WASHINGTON -- The elusive gulf war syndrome was caused by combinations of chemicals that mingled as they came into contact with U.S. servicemen during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, according to new research to be published in next week's Journal of the American Medical Association.
The research was based on examining 249 Navy construction battalion members and finding that 25 percent of them had one of three major "syndromes."
The study suggests that the mysterious complaints grew not from battlefield stress, but were symptoms of physical damage inflicted by exposure to low-level doses of nerve gas, pesticides, anti-nerve-gas medicine and other substances.
"Illness from the gulf war is real," declared Dr. Robert W. Haley, of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, who was chief investigator in the research. "The syndromes are due to subtle brain, spinal cord and nerve damage -- but not stress."
The paper is another in a series of studies that have reached sharply different conclusions on a medical mystery that is also a matter of hot political dispute. Veterans groups, some of their allies in Congress and other critics maintain that the Pentagon has responded slowly and half-heartedly to veterans' complaints.
On Tuesday, a 10-member expert panel convened by the White House issued a report faulting the Pentagon's handling of the issue, but finding that nerve gas exposure was not likely to have caused the illnesses now under scrutiny.
Regarding the Texas study, some researchers quickly warned that it offered valuable new data and theories, but had weaknesses that made it less than definitive. The sample was small, the illnesses were self-reported, and the most intensive medical testing -- using electronic instruments -- was given to only five veterans, these researchers said.
The work by the Texas researchers was underwritten by Texas billionaire Ross Perot and had to undergo peer scrutiny before being published.
The study found that a quarter of the battalion members who were examined suffered from symptoms that the researchers grouped into three major "syndromes."
The researchers called one ailment the "impaired cognition" syndrome. The symptoms included memory lapses, depression, insomnia, daytime fatigue, slurred speech, confusion and migraine- like headaches.
In this group were veterans who had worn flea collars in the gulf to ward off desert insects.
A second syndrome had symptoms of confusion and disorientation, dizziness, sensations of lost balance, problems thinking and reasoning, and sexual impotence. The researchers found this constellation of symptoms among veterans who had taken the medicine pyridostigmine bromide, or PB, to counter nerve gas, and also among those who had been subjected to Iraqi chemical weapons.
The researchers found a third syndrome associated with joint and muscle pain, muscle weakness and tingling in the limbs. Many of the studied veterans suffering from this ailment had apparently come in contact with heavy concentrations of DEET, a key ingredient in insect repellents, and had also taken the PB pills.