WASHINGTON -- For the first time, a federal agency acknowledged on Tuesday that there appeared to be a direct link between the release of toxic chemicals in Iraq in 1991 and one of the many different symptoms that have come to be called Gulf War Syndrome.
A preliminary analysis by the Department of Veterans Affairs indicated that a limited sampling of soldiers exposed to low doses of nerve gas during the destruction of an Iraqi military ammunition depot reported higher rates of arthritis-like joint symptoms than other soldiers who fought in the war. But the findings are far from conclusive, according to government researchers who have warned that they could change as more soldiers are examined in future months.
"It's an interesting finding that raises questions," said Kenneth Kizer, the Veterans Affairs Department under secretary for health affairs, after announcing the results of the analysis at a House subcommittee hearing.
The study is based on the results of medical examinations of 1,978 veterans who were within 30 miles of the Kamisiyah ammunition storage area in southern Iraq when American troops destroyed the complex immediately after the Gulf War in March 1991. Among the ammunition stored at the site were at least 500 rockets filled with sarin, a toxic nerve agent.
Of those 1,978 veterans, the 81 veterans who were involved in blowing up the depot or were in the immediate area of the complex have not complained of suffering fatigue, skin rashes, headaches, loss of memory, chest pains or other symptoms at significantly higher rates than other American soldiers who fought in the gulf, according to the study.
But 28.4 percent of those 81 soldiers who were in the immediate area of the depot have reported various types of muscle and joint pains, compared with only 18.4 percent of the entire group of 1,978 veterans. A total of 16.8 percent of 52,216 gulf veterans so far examined by the government have reported suffering the same arthritic-like symptoms.
The preliminary finding seems to run counter to one conclusion of a special White House panel, the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses. The panel could find no evidence that exposure to chemical weapons had affected the health of gulf war veterans. In a 126-page report issued two weeks ago, the panel said there was no scientific evidence to link any specific environmental factor -- including nerve gas, pesticides, and oil-well fires -- that could explain the various ailments that have arisen among the 697,000 gulf war veterans.
Until last June, Pentagon officials had denied for years that there was any evidence that American troops had been exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons at all. Now, they acknowledge that more than 20,000 troops might have been exposed to such agents during the destruction of the Kamisiyah depot, although there were no immediate reports of acute symptoms at the time. The 81 veterans most likely exposed to the poison gases included in the preliminary Veterans Affairs study represent only a small fraction of the 1,022 military personnel who were in the immediate vicinity of what is now called "the Kamisiyah incident."
Military and Veterans Affairs officials ultimately hope to interview all 21,799 military personnel who were within 30 miles of the storage site when it was destroyed. The records that so far have been included in the Veterans Affairs analysis are of veterans who have volunteered to be examined by the government, often after complaining of suffering from one symptom or another.
"This health surveillance data is preliminary," Kizer told the House subcommittee in a prepared statement, "and is compiled from evaluations of a nonrandom, self-selected group of individuals possibly exposed to nerve agents at Kamisiyah." He added that the information represented "one perspective, or a partial snapshot."
"After their repeated denials that there were any exposures whatsoever, the statement is certainly welcome," said James Tuite III, director of the Gulf War Research Foundation, a group that calls on the government to acknowledge that tens of thousands of veterans became sick from the war.
Jeffrey Ford, a 33-year-old Gulf veteran who was a member of the 307th Engineering Battalion involved in the destruction of the Kamisiyah depot, also said he welcomed the Veterans Affairs analysis. "It shows something in the area took place that affected these soldiers," he said. "When you talk about joint pain, some of these people are in wheelchairs." Ford, who attended the hearing, said he had not yet suffered any symptoms attributed to the syndrome.
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company