WASHINGTON -- Eighty-six members of the House Friday urged a special White House panel of experts to reverse itself and conclude that Iraqi chemical weapons were responsible for some of the health problems reported by veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
The lawmakers, responding to the draft of a new government report that linked Iraqi nerve gas with the sorts of illnesses seen among the veterans, said in a letter to the White House committee that "the evidence is clear that exposure to a wide variety of chemicals in the Persian Gulf may be a significant factor in Persian Gulf illness."
The panel, the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, concluded earlier this year that Iraqi chemical weapons were probably not responsible for the veterans' health problems, and that it was far more likely the ailments were linked to wartime stress.
But the panel's findings have been challenged in recent weeks, most significantly by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, which is expected to release a report next week that will harshly criticize the committee's investigation.
A draft of the report said there was "substantial evidence" linking nerve gas to the sorts of health problems seen among the veterans.
The author of the House letter, Rep. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., said at a news conference Friday that the White House panel may have overlooked the possibility that chemical weapons had caused the veterans' illnesses because the committee was "highly dependent" on the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs "for a lot of its information."
The panel's chairman, Joyce Lashof, the former dean of the public health school at the University of California at Berkeley, said in a telephone interview that the committee members stand by their findings and that their conclusions were reached "after an extensive review of the peer-reviewed literature -- we looked at all of these issues."
In a response this month to the General Accounting Office, Lashof said that the draft report was "not worthy to stand published alongside other GAO efforts," and that "the errors of commission and omission are so serious that the publication of this draft in its current form would do a disservice to the Congress' and president's efforts to address gulf war veterans' illnesses."
The Defense Department acknowledged last year that thousands of U.S. troops may have been exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons as a result of the demolition of a sprawling Iraqi ammunition depot shortly after the war. But Pentagon officials have been reluctant to link that exposure to the health problems reported by veterans.
"I hate to condemn those people," Sanders said of the White House committee, which includes some prominent scientists and doctors. "But it's what happens in politics. They are backing themselves into a corner. They are building a wall around themselves. And I think that's very unfortunate."
The House letter was signed by lawmakers from both parties. "This is absolutely a nonpartisan issue," Sanders said.
A Pentagon spokesman, Bryan Whitman, said lawmakers were wrong to suggest that the Defense Department was not aggressively seeking an answer to the health problems of veterans. "We're embarked on a very extensive research program," Whitman said. "We take very seriously the reports of chemical detections."
The House letter was released as three senior Democrats in the Senate called on the GAO to open a new investigation of American military doctrine to deal with exposure to low levels of chemical weapons, like those that American troops may have faced in the gulf war.
The Senators -- Carl Levin of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee; Robert Byrd of West Virginia, ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, and John Glenn of Ohio, ranking Democrat on the Governmental Affairs Committee -- said in a letter to the GAO that they were concerned "that U.S. military doctrine has not changed to reflect the lessons learned from the Gulf War experience."
"We believe that the most effective course of action is to prevent the exposures or combination exposures from occurring," the senators said. "The effectiveness of current technology is questionable."
James Tuite III, a former Senate investigator who is now the director of the Gulf War Research Foundation, said a new investigation was needed because "the Pentagon's steadfast denial of a cause and effect relationship between exposure and illness had resulted in policies and doctrine that continue to place our active duty forces in harm's way."
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company