Gulf War Illness: It's Real, Afflicts About 200K Vets, Says Panel

November 26, 2008

As the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on, new light has been shed on the environmental health impacts of the 1991 Gulf War. On Nov. 17, 2008, the Congressionally-mandated Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses released a major report which concluded that from 175,000 to 210,000 of the nearly 700,000 U.S. veterans of the first Gulf War suffer from Gulf War illness.

According to the report, Gulf War illness is a "complex of multiple concurrent symptoms typically includes persistent memory and concentration problems, chronic headaches, widespread pain, gastrointestinal problems, and other chronic abnormalities not explained by well-established diagnoses. No effective treatments have been identified for Gulf War illness and studies indicate that few veterans have recovered over time. ... Evidence strongly and consistently indicates that two Gulf War neurotoxic exposures are causally associated with Gulf War illness: 1) use of pyridostigmine bromide (PB) pills, given to protect troops from effects of nerve agents, and 2) pesticide use during deployment."

Page 131 of the 470-page report notes that "In 2003, the Dept. of Defense reported that US personnel serving in the Gulf War used or had available for use, at least 64 pesticides and related products, containing 37 active ingredients. Of these, 15 were identified as 'pesticides of potential concern' based on what was known about the use and toxic effects of these compounds. The 15 pesticides include seven organophosphates, three carbamates, two pyrethroids, one organochlorine, and two forms of the insect repellant DEET. The most commonly used personal repellants were DEET, which was primarily to be used on the skin, and permethrin, which was to be sprayed onto uniforms. ...Overall, 62% of ground troops interviewed reported some form of pesticide use."

Table 2 on report p. 132 lists the 15 pesticides of concern. You can look up more information on these chemicals from EPA's fact sheets. Contacts.

What about other types of environmental health risks present in the Gulf War theater? According to the report:

"For several Gulf War exposures, an association with Gulf War illness cannot be ruled out. These include low-level exposure to nerve agents, close proximity to oil well fires, receipt of multiple vaccines, and effects of combinations of Gulf War exposures. There is some evidence supporting a possible association between these exposures and Gulf War illness, but that evidence is inconsistent or limited in important ways.

"Other wartime exposures are not likely to have caused Gulf War illness for the majority of ill veterans. ...These include depleted uranium, anthrax vaccine, fuels, solvents, sand and particulates, infectious diseases, and chemical agent resistant coating (CARC)."