WASHINGTON, Aug. 18 -- Nearly half the members of a special White House committee on the illnesses of gulf war veterans say they will urge that the panel reverse itself and conclude that Iraqi chemical weapons may be an important factor in the veterans' health problems.
Their views suggest a dramatic turnaround in the final report by the panel, which said in an interim report to President Clinton in January that chemical weapons were "unlikely" to be a cause of the illnesses reported by thousands of veterans of the Persian Gulf war. The committee instead singled out wartime stress as a likely cause of the ailments.
In interviews, 5 of the 11 members of the panel, the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, said they were impressed by new evidence showing that clouds of gases from chemical weapons might have traveled much farther across the battlefield than previously reported by the Defense Department.
A Pentagon report issued last month estimated that nerve gas wafted over as many as 98,900 troops -- 1 of every 7 Americans who served in the gulf -- from the demolition of the Kamisiyah ammunition depot in southern Iraq in March 1991, shortly after the war.
Some of the panel members said they were also intrigued by studies, published last January in the Journal of the American Medical Association, in which University of Texas researchers said the illnesses of gulf war veterans appeared to be a result of exposure to a combination of chemicals, including nerve gas.
The six other members of the White House panel either did not return telephone calls for comment or referred the calls to the committee. At least some of these members are expected to stand behind the earlier conclusion that chemical weapons are unlikely to be the cause of illnesses among the veterans.
But that almost half the panel's members are now willing to speak out publicly in favor of revising the Committee's conclusions would suggest that the findings will be reversed, or at least will be a subject of heated debate when the committee holds its final public hearings next month in Alexandria, Va.
"This is worth fighting for," said Thomas P. Cross, a committee member who is a gulf war veteran. "I still think that there's no one single cause of the health problems, but we now know that the chemicals were scattered across the battlefield."
Another member, Rolando Rios, a lawyer from San Antonio who is a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, said he might ask that his name be removed from the final report if the conclusions about chemical weapons were not changed.
"We have to make some changes," he said. "I personally think that it was inappropriate for us to say that it was unlikely that chemical weapons were responsible for the health problems. How can we say it's unlikely if we haven't done the homework?"
The other members of the panel who said they would like to see a rewriting of the committee's conclusions are: Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania; Marguerite Knox, a gulf war veteran who is a professor of nursing at the University of South Carolina, and Andrea Kidd Taylor, an occupational health policy consultant for the United Automobile Workers.
Some members said they would also ask that the final report, which is expected to be presented to the White House in October, make clear that stress could not be the sole cause of the ailments.
Several said they expected that the new report, like the last one, would conclude that the Pentagon had failed to carry out an adequate investigation of the possibility that American troops had been exposed to chemical weapons.
Ms. Knox, who served in Saudi Arabia during the war as a major in the Army Nurse Corps, said she was informed in a letter from the Pentagon this summer that she was one of the nearly 100,000 American troops who might have been in the path of nerve gas released by the demolition of the Kamisiyah depot.
"I was somewhat surprised by that," she said, explaining that she had previously been told that she had been stationed too far from the depot to worry about exposure to nerve gas. "I think what we have found out about Kamisiyah, that's pretty eye opening."
Ms. Knox said the new evidence demonstrated a need for the White House panel to reverse itself and leave open the distinct possibility of a link between chemical weapons and the health problems of veterans. "That has to be looked at," she said. "I would want some revision."
She said the findings of last January were correct "based on the information we had at the time." Now, she said, "I'm not so sure that it was right."
Dr. Caplan said that the January conclusions might have been "poorly worded" and that he believed that the health problems of gulf war veterans could be a result of interaction among several factors, including nerve gas and stress.
"I'd say that chemicals are unlikely to be the sole cause," he said. "It's the interactivity that you've got to look at. I'm leaning toward saying that we'd better leave that open as a possibility."
Scientists are divided on the questions of whether exposure to low levels of chemical weapons may be responsible for the illnesses of gulf war veterans, who typically complain of digestive problems and memory loss.
Some researchers believe that the veterans' ailments are similar to those reported in the aftermath of other wars, attributable to wartime stress. And some recent studies show that gulf war veterans have not died or been admitted to hospitals in unusual numbers.
In a report last month, however, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said its review of the scientific literature showed that there was "substantial evidence" linking organophosphates, the family of chemicals that includes nerve gas and many pesticides, to the sorts of ailments reported by veterans. The G.A.O. criticized the White House panel's inquiry.
In its January report, the panel singled out wartime stress as "likely to be an important contributing factor to the broad range of illnesses reported by gulf war veterans."
Members of the panel now say the report's finding on stress created a
misperception that the committee was suggesting that stress might prove to be
the sole cause of the ailments.
"I think our initial report was misinterpreted as saying that stress was the major factor," said Dr. Kidd Taylor. "We might have found some better way of saying that, but we didn't. And I'm hoping in the final report we can make it clear what we meant."
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company