WASHINGTON -- A special White House panel concluded today that it could find no evidence that exposure to chemical weapons had hurt the health of Persian Gulf war veterans, but it sharply criticized the Pentagon's investigation of the issue and said further study was needed.
In accepting the report today, President Clinton extended the panel's life by nine months to insure independent oversight of the ongoing Pentagon investigation.
While it found no specific syndrome affecting Persian Gulf war veterans, the 12-member panel, the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, did say that battlefield stress was almost certainly a contributing factor.
The panel said the Pentagon's refusal until a few months ago to finance research into the long-term health effects of low-level exposure to chemical agents "has done veterans and the public a disservice."
Clearly aware of this stinging criticism, President Clinton said today that the panel would watch over the Pentagon's shoulder.
"We will do whatever we can and whatever it takes to research gulf war illnesses as thoroughly as possible," Mr. Clinton said.
"Every credible possibility must be fully explored, including low-level chemical exposure and combat stress."
Mr. Clinton continued, "I pledge to our veterans and to every American, we will not stop until we have done all we can to care for our gulf war veterans, to find out why they are sick and to help to make them healthy again."
The panel's 126-page report, however, shed no new light on what is making veterans sick.
The panel said current scientific evidence does not link the veterans' ailments to any specific environmental hazard in the gulf -- including pesticides, nerve gas and oil-well fires.
But panel members urged the Government to study these little-researched possibilities more fully.
The Departments of Defense, Veterans' Affairs and Health and Human Services have sponsored more than 70 research projects to identify the possible causes of the illnesses.
Under pressure from Congress and a searing preliminary report from the panel, the Defense Department announced last November that it would expand its team of investigators to 110 from 12 and that it would investigate dozens of incidents in the gulf war in which chemical agents were detected.
"The department's early efforts were superficial and lacked credibility," Dr. Joyce C. Lashof, the panel's chairwoman, a former dean of the school of public health at the University of California at Berkeley, said today.
"We hope these initiatives can begin to restore public confidence in the Government's investigations of possible incidents of chemical agent exposure."
But gulf war veterans' groups and their backers on Capitol Hill immediately criticized the panel's findings, particularly that the physical effects of wartime stress may explain many health problems.
James J. Tuite 3d, who led a Senate inquiry into gulf war illnesses in 1993 and 1994 and who is now working with veterans' groups, said, "The Department of Defense and the White House have dismissed a large body of scientific literature that supports the contention that low-level chemical agents and other toxic exposures can can cause these types of chronic illnesses."
Some recent scientific studies suggest that through late 1993, gulf war veterans were not dying or falling seriously ill at unusual rates.
But other studies have found gulf war veterans do have higher rates of chronic illnesses, which might be related to low-level exposure to chemical agents.
Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention today released the conclusions of a study that found that 2,000 gulf war veterans from Iowa were more likely to suffer from ailments like asthma or depression than 2,000 Iowa veterans who did not serve in the gulf.
Senator John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, who is the ranking Democrat on the Veterans' Affairs Committee, complained of the "massive indifference of the whole military establishment" to this problem and expressed concern over the panel's emphasis on battlefield stress.
"When you say 'stress' to the American people, when it's diffused through the media, they think it's something psychological, it's something of the mind, when in fact these people -- maybe 50,000 or more of them -- who went over there completely healthy and came back, who are now very, very sick, and it's not just a stress syndrome," Mr. Rockefeller told reporters.
About 80,000 of the 697,000 United States members of the military who served in the gulf have requested special medical examinations to determine whether they were made sick by their service.
Many of the veterans have complained of a variety of ailments, including gastrointestinal problems, chronic fatigue and joint aches.
Senator Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who is the new chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, said today that he would hold hearings beginning Thursday to determine whether the Defense Department deliberately concealed information about the link between the gulf illnesses and low-level exposure to chemical agents.
But Dr. Lashof, the panel chairwoman, said, "We found no evidence of a cover-up."
Although she criticized the Pentagon's slow response to the issue, Dr. Lashof said there was no clinical evidence of long-term health effects from high-level exposures to chemical agents.
"In my view, it would be unlikely to see results from low-level when we don't see long-term effects from high-level exposure," she said.
The committee recommended further research on the long-term health effects of low-level exposure to nerve agents such as sarin and various pesticides.
Specifically, it said the Government should look at cases involving American workers exposed to pesticides and civilians exposed to sarin in Japan.
After denying for years that it had any evidence that American troops had been exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons in the gulf war, the Pentagon announced in June, in what it now calls a "watershed" event, that it had found evidence in archives suggesting that more than 20,000 troops might have been exposed to such agents in the destruction of the Kamisiyah depot in March of 1991.
The depot was blown up by a battalion of American combat engineers.
No one reported acute symptoms at the time, but many soldiers have since complained of chronic, debilitating ailments.
In the fall of 1991, just months after the war ended, a team of United Nations weapons inspectors allowed by the Iraqis to visit Kamisiyah found evidence that chemical weapons had been stored there.
The inspectors filed a series of reports to the United Nations Security Council on their findings.
Bernard D. Rostker, the Pentagon official overseeing gulf-war illness policy, told reporters today that when the intelligence message about Kamisiyah reached the Defense Intelligence Agency at the Pentagon, an analyst there discounted it as "not credible" because Iraqis led the United Nations inspectors to the site.
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company