When US forces destroyed a chemical munitions dump in Khamisiyah, Iraq in March 1991, the soldiers concerned did not realize what they were getting into. Only much later it was revealed they could have been exposed to the deadly sarin gas, released during the demolition.
Sarin is a chemical weapon estimated to be over 500 times as toxic as cyanide. Non-lethal doses can create permanent neurological damage and symptoms such as loss of memory, paralysis, seizures and respiratory problems. Turns out that over eight metric tons of sarin were released during the Khamisiyah demolitions.
Still many scientists sounded skeptical. But last week a research funded by the defence department showed that even a low-level exposure to sarin nerve gas could have caused lasting brain deficits in former service members.
Also symptoms were found to be exacerbated by the use of bug repellant and a nerve-agent antidote given to roughly 250,000 troops during the Gulf War.
When the roughly 700,000 deployed troops returned home, about one in seven began experiencing a mysterious set of ailments, often called gulf war illnesses, with problems including persistent fatigue, chronic headaches, joint pain and nausea. Those symptoms persist today for more than 150,000 of them, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, more than the number of troops exposed to the gases.
Advocates for veterans have argued for more than a decade and a half that a link exists between many of these symptoms and the exposure that occurred in Khamisiyah, but evidence has been limited.
The latest study, financed by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is the first to use Pentagon data on potential exposure levels faced by the troops and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of military personnel in the exposure zone. It found signs of brain changes that could be due to exposure, showing that troops who had been exposed at higher levels had about 5 percent less white matter than those who had little exposure.
White matter volume varies by individual, but studies have shown that significant shrinkage in adulthood can be a sign of damage.
The study was led by Roberta F. White, chairman of the department of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health. Dr. White and other researchers studied 26 gulf war veterans, half of whom were exposed to the gases, according to a Defense Department modeling of the likely chemical makeup and location of the plume. The researchers found that troops with greater potential exposure had less white matter.
In a companion study, the researchers also tested 140 troops believed to have experienced differing degrees of exposure to the chemical agents to check their fine motor coordination and found a direct relation between performance level and the level of potential exposure. Individuals who were potentially more exposed to the gases had a deterioration in fine motor skills, performing such tests at a level similar to people 20 years older.
Dr. White says this study and the results of research from other studies provide "converging evidence that some gulf war veterans experienced nervous system damage as a result of service, and this is an important development in explaining gulf war illnesses."
Previous research has linked sarin with brain cancer, and Freedom of Information Act requests indicate the Pentagon knew that up to 300,000 Desert Storm troops may have suffered from sarin exposure. Yet veterans seeking support were often told that their symptoms had no physical basis.
The American Journal of Public Health had said two years ago that Khamisiyah veterans were nearly twice as likely as their unexposed peers from the same war to die from brain cancer.
"Further analysis showed evidence of an effect based exposure levels. For instance, compared with their unexposed peers, veterans exposed to chemical munitions for one day were 72 percent more likely to die from brain cancer, while those exposed for two or more days were 226 percent more likely to die from brain cancer," it had said.
Yet it is doubtful if even now, over 16 years after the Khamisiyah disaster, the Department of Defense (DOD) will finally face the issue of US-troop sarin exposure.
One obvious reason is money. If the DoD admitted to withholding critical information connected to their medical illnesses, tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of Gulf War veterans could potentially become eligible for compensation.
Second, acknowledging the sarin issue could raise further questions about the Pentagon's 2003 admission of having tested biological/chemical agents on 5,842 service members from 1962-73. In operations called Project 112 and Project SHAD, the Defense Department tested weapons capabilities on troops in six states (Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Utah), Canada and Britain. Many veterans of those operations were not informed for decades and are still fighting for compensation and recognition.
Third, an admission of guilt would weaken the DoD's credibility regarding controversial programs today. For example, the anthrax vaccine is mandatory for military personnel and civilians deploying to "high-threat" areas across the globe, including Iraq and Afghanistan, despite being linked to serious illnesses and even death among US service members. Quite conveniently, the quarterly analysis of medical care data for vaccinated service members was ended in 2002, critics charge.
Several lawmakers who were briefed on the White team study say the Department of Veterans Affairs is now obligated to provide increased neurological care to veterans who may have been exposed.
But Dr. Michael E. Kilpatrick, deputy director of the Force Health Protection and Readiness Initiative at the Defense Department, argued the impact of the study was limited and that it did not establish a direct causal connection between sarin exposure and gulf war illnesses.
The study had depended on DOD data that was at best an estimate and at worst a guesstimate of exposure levels by troops.
"But I'm sure we will be talking with members of Congress about it in deciding how to go forward," said Dr. Kilpatrick, who has handled much of the department's work on Khamisiyah and troop health issues.