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Technology

Chemicals at War

By Sarah RichardsonJanuary 1, 1996 6:00 AM

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Of the 697,000 American veterans who served in the Gulf War, tens of thousands have complained of symptoms such as joint pain, diarrhea, respiratory problems, fatigue, rashes, memory loss, insomnia, and depression. Even more troubling are scattered reports of serious birth defects, like those caused by thalidomide, among their children. Yet in August a study by the Defense Department claimed there is no well-defined syndrome among the Gulf War veterans (and as yet there are no complete studies of their offspring). That announcement was in stark contrast to a report just two months earlier by the Centers for Disease Control that veterans who had served in the Persian Gulf were up to 12 times more likely than other vets to suffer the kinds of chronic symptoms listed above. And although in 1994 the Department of Veterans Affairs agreed to approve disability claims for chronic, undiagnosable conditions linked to service in the gulf, so far only 5 percent of such claims have been approved.

The confusion and skepticism about the complaints is partly due to the absence of an identifiable common cause. Last April, however, researchers at Duke University Medical Center finally came up with a plausible explanation for at least those symptoms related to the nervous system. They found that combinations of chemicals such as are found in pesticides and insect repellents used by the soldiers caused nerve damage in chickens and thus might have the same effect in humans. But the effect depended on the presence of two or more chemicals, and the damage from these chemical combinations was hastened by the presence of an anti-nerve gas agent, called pyridostigmine bromide, that was also used in the gulf.

Pharmacologist Mohamed Abou-Donia, who led the study, says pyridostigmine bromide protects against nerve gas by binding to--and shielding--the enzyme that nerve gas attacks. But it also grabs onto enzymes that help break down toxic chemicals, thus impairing the body’s ability to degrade them before they reach--and harm--the brain.

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