A report from the Boston University School of Public Health shows that Gulf War Illness is a result of exposure to pesticides and other toxins used in the Gulf War. The report also notes that in addition to Gulf War Illness, deployed Gulf War veterans suffer higher rates of stroke, brain cancer and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) compared to non-deployed veterans – a finding that was supported by a 2009 study from the Department of Veteran Affairs.
Of the 700,000 U.S. troops that fought in the first Gulf War in 1991, 250,000 have developed the ailment, which is characterized by fatigue, joint and muscle pain, headaches, concentration and memory problems, gastrointestinal distress, and skin rashes.
The study – reviewing research on the health of the 1991 veterans for more than 20 years – was published in a special issue of the journal Cortex, which coincided with the 25th anniversary of the war. It was a collaboration between lead researcher Roberta White at Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) and scientists from a dozen other institutions.
The study concluded that exposure to pesticides and pyridostigmine bromide (PB) – a substance taken by the soldiers to protect them from the effects of possible nerve gas – were “casually associated with Gulf War Illness and neurological dysfunction in Gulf War veterans,” according to a press release. Six of seven studies included in the review found associations between toxic exposures, use of PB pills, and Gulf War lllness.
The study also reports associations between Gulf War Illness and exposure to the nerve gas agents sarin and cyclosarin, as well as emissions from oil fires. The toxic exposure has damaged veterans’ nervous and immune systems, resulting in dysfunction of the neuroendocrine and immune functions.
Veterans had long complained that the Department of Veterans Affairs did not take their illness seriously. In 2008, the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses issued a report concluding that Gulf War Illness is a real disease.
James Binns, former chairman of the Research Advisory Committee and co-author of the new study, points out that the toxic exposure was not a result of enemy actions.
“We did it to ourselves. Pesticides, PB, nerve gas released by destroying Iraqi facilities – all are cases of friendly fire,” Binns said. “That may explain why government and military leaders have been so reluctant to acknowledge what happened, just as they tried to cover up Agent Orange after Vietnam. Certainly, the government should have been facing the problem honestly and doing research from the start to identify diagnostic tests and treatments.”
Increased rates of brain structure alterations and increased mortality in brain cancer among veterans with the most exposure to nerve gas or oil fire emissions have been reported in earlier studies. And 14 out of 15 studies using EEG and brain imaging supports the theory that deployed Gulf War veterans who later developed Gulf War Illness have structural and electrical brain abnormalities
The report highlights that Gulf War Illness is not a psychiatric disorder, and notes that Gulf War veterans have lower rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than other veterans.
The authors note that the findings could be applied to other occupational groups with a high exposure to toxins, such as farmers and insecticide applicators. White said she hopes the new findings will lead to effective treatments, especially because veterans will be at increased risk of neuro-degenerative diseases as they age.
“It is critical that we develop treatments that will improve or, at least, stabilize these neurologic conditions,” she said.