Why Vets Are Sick / Panel gives possible causes

January 8, 1997 New York Newsday


Washington - Battlefield stress and the combined effect of military drugs and pesticides were listed yesterday as possible causes of illnesses affecting 75,000 Persian Gulf war veterans by a White House panel that also concluded some American troops were exposed to low levels of nerve gas during the 1991 desert conflict with Iraq.

Dr. Joyce Lashof, chairwoman of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, also criticized the Defense Department for delaying details about exposure of U.S. troops to chemical munitions. During a White House ceremony, President Bill Clinton accepted the report and authorized the committee to oversee the Pentagon's continuing investigation for the next nine months.

"It is essential now to move swiftly toward resolving gulf war veterans' principal remaining concerns: how many U.S. troops were exposed to chemical warfare agents and to what degree," Lashof said.

But at a news conference later, Lashof said it was "unlikely" that current illnesses were caused by low levels of poison gas. Medical research shows even higher doses of chemical exposure have failed to cause long-term illnesses, she said, although the panel recommended that the matter be studied further.

Lashof told Clinton that the panel's 16-month investigation found the Pentagon conducted superficial studies of nerve-gas incidents that delayed funding of needed research into low-level exposures to chemical warfare agents.

"Department of Defense's intransigence in refusing to fund such research until late this year has done the veterans and the public a disservice," Lashof said. For five years, the Pentagon denied troops had been exposed to chemical munitions.

Grilling of U.S. Army and CIA experts by Lashoff and her staff preceded last summer's disclosures at the Pentagon that at least 20,800 U.S. troops were possibly exposed to nerve gas after U.S. Army engineers destroyed chemical munitions at a storage site at Khamisiyah in southern Iraq.

"We presumed exposure" at Khamisiyah in the weeks after the war ended, Lashof said. And, she noted, the Pentagon was still investigating troop exposure to nerve gas before and during the ground war.

The panel's 174-page report covered the hazards facing 697,000 U.S. troops who helped liberate Kuwait from the forces of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The panel ruled out as possible causes smoke from oil-well fires, depleted uranium used in armor-piercing rounds, desert diseases, vaccines and possible exposure to biological weapons.

"Stress is likely to be an important contributing factor to the broad range of illnesses," the report said, in echoing previous U.S. Army conclusions that battlefield pressures have had a long-term impact on veterans.

While pesticides and a drug prescribed as protection against soman nerve gas were viewed as unlikely causes of illnesses by themselves, the panel said that in combination the two may have caused some ailments.

The drug, pyridostigmine bromide (PB), has been cited as a cause of illness by some veterans. The panel cited research involving PB and pesticides used during the war, including DEET and permethin. "Prudence requires further investigation," the panel said.

No senior Pentagon officials attended the White House ceremony, where Clinton stressed that the controversy remained open.

"We don't have all the answers," Clinton said, noting investigations are still under way at both the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency. The president gave it authority over the Defense Department's newly expanded investigation of possible causes of what had been dubbed the Persian Gulf Syndrome.

Most of the soldiers affected - including 22,300 on active duty - share symptoms, including fatigue, joint pain, rashes, loss of sleep and diarrhea.

After the ceremony, leaders of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee pledged hearings on the military's performance and legislation liberalizing treatment and disability payments for gulf war veterans.

"There is substantial indication of coverup," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the panel committee chairman. "We intend to get to the bottom of it."

While the American Legion praised the White House panel's effort, the report was attacked by some veterans' groups. The National Gulf War Resource Center said the study failed to consider Pentagon disclosures about nerve gas detections near U.S. troops.


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