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The Unfinished War

By Mark CaldwellJanuary 1, 1997 6:00 AM


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Just months after the war in the Persian Gulf ended in 1991, veterans began reporting an alarmingly consistent yet frustratingly unspecific range of ailments: headaches, tiredness, muscle and joint pain, memory loss, depression. Five years later, there is still no scientific consensus that they constitute an identifiable Gulf War syndrome, let alone agreement on a possible cause. In 1996, however, the report that at least some vets might have been exposed to nerve gas during the war suggested that there might be substance to the notion of chemically induced illness.

In September, the Pentagon announced that some 5,000 American soldiers may have been exposed to mustard gas and sarin gas in March 1991, when the Army’s 37th Engineer Battalion destroyed an ammunitions depot in southern Iraq. Only 150 soldiers or so carried out the destruction, but many thousands more may have been close enough to suffer low-level exposure to the gases that had been stored in the depot. The Pentagon has begun notifying these soldiers.

This news, although far from proving that chemical exposure is a cause of Gulf War illness, lends indirect force to such a hypothesis. It was already clear that soldiers in the war were exposed to other types of chemicals: insecticides, insect repellent, and the agents they used to protect themselves against nerve gas. Individually those chemicals might be relatively harmless, but in combination, Duke University pharmacologist Mohamed Abou-Donia showed in 1995, they can produce nerve damage in hens. Abou-Donia is now studying whether combinations that include low doses of sarin and other nerve gases can produce similar effects. Other labs are tracking the effects of other chemicals--such as vaccines, paints, depleted uranium, and smoke. As real evidence finally begins to trickle in, it seems increasingly unlikely that Gulf War syndrome will prove to have been imaginary.

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