In November of 2008, the Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses presented a 450 page report to Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Peake. The report stated that the Gulf War Syndrome (GWS), previously dismissed as a psychosomatic disorder, is a very real illness affecting between 25-50% of the 700,000 U.S. Veterans who participated in the 1991 Gulf War.
GSI was likely caused by repeated exposure to toxic chemicals, including overused pesticides, drugs given to the U.S. troops for protection against nerve gas, smoke from oil fires, anthrax vaccines, and exposure to depleted uranium. Additionally, a 2004 British study found that Gulf War veterans (GWV) were 40-50% more likely to be unable to start a pregnancy and were 2 to 3 times more likely to having children with birth defects.
According to the report, 62% of ground troops interviewed reported some form of pesticide use. Forty-four percent used pesticide sprays daily and 26% used pesticide lotions a median of 20 times per month. The most commonly used compound was DEET, used by half of all personal almost daily. Permethrin was used by fewer personnel but was on average, used daily.
The Pesticide Information Project of Cooperative Extension Offices of Cornell University states that “Everglades National Park employees having extensive DEET exposure were more likely to have insomnia, mood disturbances and impaired cognitive function than were lesser exposed co-workers”. Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency classified permethrin as “Likely to be Carcinogenic to Humans” by the oral route. This classification was based on two reproducible benign tumor types (lung and liver) in the mouse, equivocal evidence of carcinogenicity in Long- Evans rats, and supporting structural activity relationship information.
Permethrin also has been shown to kill 1 in 10 cats exposed to permethrin with 90% of them displaying symptoms of twitching and convulsions. Furthermore, a study by the Predictive Toxicology Research Group in Inda found significant functional impairment of the blood-brain barrier following pesticide exposure during development in rats, even after one exposure.
Depleted uranium, used in tank kinetic energy penetrator and autocannon rounds on a large scale in the Gulf War, has been recognized as a neurotoxin. Uranium is a heavy metal and chemical toxicant with nephrotoxic (kidney damaging), teratogenic (birth defect causing), and carcinogenic properties and is usually associated with a variety of illnesses. In a study of U.K. troops serving in the gulf, the risk of malformation among pregnancies reported by men was 50% higher in GWV, compared to non-GWVs.
Depleted uranium has been shown to induce cancer development and genetic mutations, autoimmune diseases and the core functionality of T cells, which play a central role in cell-mediated immunity.
Many of the symptoms of GWS are similar to the symptoms of organophosphate, mustard gas, and nerve gas poisoning. GWV were exposed to a number of sources including nerve gas and pesticides. Over 125,000 U.S. troops were exposed to nerve gas and mustard gas when an Iraqi depot in Khamisiyah, Iraq was bombed in 1991.
Additionally there is speculation that residual chemical agents from the Iran-Iraq war caused environmental contamination and chronic exposure to the troops, consistent with the increased observation of birth defects amongst the Iraqis during the period of the Gulf War.
Nerve Gas Protection
Pyridostigmine bromide (PB), an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor intended to protect against nerve agents was used extensively by GWV. According to the National Academy of Sciences, excess illness in Persian Gulf War veterans (GWV) can be explained in part by exposure of GWV to organophosphate and carbamate acetylcholinesterase inhibitors (AChEis), including pyridostigmine bromide (PB), pesticides, and nerve agents. Evidence germane to the relation of AChEis to illness in GWV was assessed. Many epidemiological studies reported a link between AChEi exposure and chronic symptoms in GWV.
It has been suggested that intake of PB by GWV may induce a condition termed bromism, a condition induced from the excessive intake of bromide, with neurological, psychiatric, dermatological, and possibly endocrine effects. Psychiatric symptoms may include, in the earlier stages, disinhibition, self-neglect, fatigue, sluggishness, impairment of memory and concentration, irritability or emotional instability, and depression.
Symptoms of more advanced disease may include confusion but occasionally schizophrenic-like behavior or hallucinations in clear consciousness. Behavior can become violent, especially at night or under the influence of drugs or alcohol and there may be severe auditory and visual hallucinations.
During Operation Desert Storm, 41% of U.S. combat soldiers were vaccinated against anthrax. This was a source of serious side effects relating to GWS, as well as local skin reactions, some lasting for weeks or months. Remarkably, while approved by the FDA, it never went through any large scale clinical trials, unlike almost all other vaccines in the United States. Even after the war, troops that had never been deployed overseas developed GWS symptoms after receiving the vaccine. The Pentagon additionally failed to report 20,000 cases where soldiers were hospitalized after receiving the vaccine.
A U.S. Federal Judge ruled that there was good cause to believe it was harmful, and ordered the Pentagon to stop administering it in October of 2004. The ban was lifted in February 2008 after the FDA re-examined and approved the drug again. The vaccine is the only substance suspected in GWS to which forced exposure has been banned.
Homeless and Incarcerated Veterans
According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, as of 2001, 23% of the homeless populations in America are veterans, accounting for between 529,000 and 840,000 of the total homeless population. 33% of these were stationed in a war zone, 89% received a dishonorable discharge and 75% experience alcohol, drug or mental health problems. For comparison, as of July 2008, there were 147,000 troops deployed in Iraq.
A 2000 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicated another 225,000 veterans were held in Nation’s prisons or jails in 1998. 60% of incarcerated veterans had served in the Army. 35% of veterans in state prison were convicted of a violent crime, compared to 20% of non-veterans and surprisingly, the average sentence of veterans was 50 months longer than the average of non-veterans.
Gulf War Syndrome profiles typically include some combination of chronic headaches, cognitive difficulties, widespread pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic diarrhea, skin rashes, respiratory problems, increased birth defects, sleep disorders, memory problems, blurred vision and a variety of other symptoms. To date there is no identified treatment for Gulf War Syndrome that affects a significant number of veterans 17 years after the war.
The Veteran’s Administration has been slow to even acknowledge the problem, less alone, provide treatment for these veterans. Many have lost their families, are unable to hold a job or have even been incarcerated as an indirect result of illnesses caused during their tour in the Gulf War. It’s time that the U.S. Government to take responsibility for exposing unsuspecting soldiers to a toxic soup that will kill Gulf War veterans for years to come.