Government study finds clue to Gulf War Syndrome

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January 21, 1997

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. soldiers who were near an Iraqi chemical weapons site when it exploded during the Gulf War suffered a higher incidence of muscle and joint pains than soldiers not exposed to the blast.

Dr. Kenneth Kizer of the Department of Veterans' Affairs announced the finding Tuesday at a House of Representatives' hearing, but said more research was needed to prove the explosions at the site caused the problems.

He said the finding came from a computer study of the medical records of 1,978 of the 21,799 U.S. soldiers who were within 30 miles (50 kilometers) of Iraq's Kamisiyah weapons dump in March 1991 when it was blown up by U.S. forces. The dump contained sarin and mustard gas weapons.

Kizer said 81 of the soldiers "have been diagnosed with musculoskeletal conditions at a higher rate than veterans who were further away." The soldiers were part of a weapons demolition team that blew up shells later found to contain the deadly nerve gas.

He said, however, that more study was needed to determine whether low levels of gas at Kamisiyah indeed caused those and other ailments.

Finding corroborates other studies

Bernard Rostker, a Pentagon official charged with overseeing the investigation into Gulf War illnesses, agreed.

"This is not a study," Rostker said. He said he could not say whether muscle aches and joint pain were common results of low-level exposure to nerve agents because, "We don't have a lot of experience with low level chemical exposures that we can document at this point."

The computer study produced the first government evidence suggesting that chemical agents may have caused the symptoms that afflict 5,000 of the 80,000 troops from the Gulf War. Gulf War Syndrome, as it is called, includes fatigue, muscle and joint pains and memory problems.

The study is not the first, however, to find such suggestive evidence. Researchers at the University of Texas' Southwestern Medical Center announced earlier this month that they had identified three separate syndromes in which Gulf War soldiers were sick from combinations of nerve agents, pesticides, insect repellent and anti-nerve gases such as sarin and mustard gas.

Soldiers have fewer mental problems, however

And yet another study, this one in Iowa, found that 2,000 Gulf War veterans reported more illnesses than an equal number of veterans who did not go to the Gulf, and suggested that the Gulf War complaints might be due to greater exposure to chemicals, gases and solvents during the war.

The study announced Tuesday showed that 30.9 percent of the 81 soldiers close to the explosion had muscle and joint pains, compared to 25.9 percent of all 1,978 soldiers in the area and 25.3 percent of the 52,216 Gulf War veterans the Veterans Administration has examined.

But the computer study found that the 81 soldiers suffered fewer mental problems and respiratory, nervous system and blood circulation problems than the other two groups.

The Defense Department insisted after the Gulf War that U.S. troops were not exposed to Iraqi war gas, with the possible exception of one soldier. It amended that in June when it announced that a large number of U.S. troops were nearby when demolition teams blew up the munitions dump in southern Iraq.

Texas researchers reject stress

More recently, President Clinton's Advisory Committee on Gulf War Illnesses said that no specific causes for the illnesses had been found, and submitted that stress was a major factor.

Researchers at the University of Texas rejected that explanation out of hand.

"The syndromes are due to subtle brain, spinal cord and nerve damage," said Dr. Robert Haley of the Southwestern Medical Center, "but not stress."

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