Sarin Nerve Gas Caused Gulf War Sickness, New Genetic Study Shows

More than 30 years after Gulf War veterans began to suffer from mysterious medical conditions, researchers say they have proven that exposure to sarin nerve gas caused the disease.

According to Department of Defense. Upon returning home, veterans complained of a wide range of chronic symptoms, such as fatigue, joint and muscle pain, rashes, headaches, mood swings and respiratory. Doctors and federal agencies struggled to identify an exact cause and for years attributed the symptoms to stress or other psychological disorders.

But one study published on May 11 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives used genetic research to point to one chemical agent in particular: sarin gas.

“Quite simply, our findings prove that Gulf War sickness was caused by sarin, which was released when we bombed Iraqi chemical weapons storage and production facilities,” said Dr Robert Haley. , a medical epidemiologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. a Press release about the study.

Dr Robert Haley pictured while examining brain scans of Gulf War veterans. Photo courtesy of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

Haley studied Gulf War illness for 28 years and said that while the evidence still pointed to exposure to nerve agents as the cause, it was difficult to “construct a compelling case.”

Sarin is a toxic nerve agent that was first developed as a pesticide in 1938 by scientists in Nazi Germany. But it wasn’t used as a weapon until 1988when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein launched chemical attacks against thousands of Kurdish civilians.

Sarin attacks the neurotransmitters responsible for stimulating the muscles, which in the worst case can cause breathing to stop. It was banned in 1997, but there are allegations that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used sarin against coalition forces and civilians on several occasions around 2013.

the Department of Veterans Affairs acknowledged that more than 100,000 veterans may have been exposed to low levels of sarin and cyclosarin after coalition troops destroyed an ammunition storage depot in Khamisiyah, Iraq, housing chemical weapons. A previous study by Haley and other researchers claimed that winds may have blown the sarin gas plume more than 300 miles toward Saudi Arabia, affecting even more soldiers and often setting off nerve gas alarms.

82nd Airborne Division
Soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division wait for the signal to board a UH-60A Black Hawk helicopter during Operation Desert Shield. US Army photo courtesy of the US National Archives.

The results

Haley and her team now believe the key to knowing whether someone got sick after exposure to sarin was a gene known as PON1, which helps the body break down pesticides.

According to Haley, there are two versions of the PON1 gene: the Q variant, which breaks down sarin efficiently; and the R variant, which breaks down other chemicals but not sarin. People have two copies of the gene in their DNA, giving three possible combinations: QQ, QR or RR.

The researchers randomly selected 1,116 Gulf War veterans for the study, half of whom had symptoms of GWI and half of whom did not. They took blood and DNA samples from each veteran and asked if the veterans had heard any chemical nerve gas alarms sounding during their deployments.

The study found that those with the weakest form of the PON1 gene were significantly more likely to have Gulf War Illness.

the gulf war
An ordnance specialist carries a 105mm armor sabot round, for use in an M1 Abrams tank, during Operation Desert Shield. Photo by the US Department of Defense.

The researchers said their study did not rule out the possibility that other chemical exposures may have caused a small number of GWI cases, but the study adds to existing confidence that sarin is a causative agent.

A “forgotten generation”

For decades, Gulf War illness has been misunderstood or even ignored by medical professionals and federal authorities, leading to intense frustration among veterans.

“The early Gulf War veterans are like a forgotten generation,” said Kaitlin Chacon, an Air Force veteran and research coordinator at a Stanford neuroscience lab. Coffee or Die Magazine. “They are sandwiched between Vietnam veterans and also OIF veterans, who have been very intense and combative campaigns […] and they have not been informed of the toxic substances to which they have been exposed for a very long time.

A 1997 Congressional investigation found that the DOD and VA were uninterested in finding a cause for GWI, did not listen to the concerns of ill veterans, and consistently attributed symptoms to post-traumatic stress or other psychological conditions. The House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight called the federal government “satisfied to assume that the Gulf War produced no delayed casualties and determined to shift the burden of proof onto sick veterans.” .

“Unfortunately, when it comes to diagnosis, treatment and research for Gulf War veterans, we find that the federal government too often has a tin ear, a cold heart and a closed mind,” the report said. .

gulf war disease
Three Marines watch as a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter lands during Operation Desert Shield November 22, 1990. U.S. Marine Corps photo courtesy of U.S. National Archives.

But the problem persisted, and in 2013 former VA epidemiologist Steven Coughlin testified before Congress that the VA had hidden or manipulated research findings that would have validated Gulf War Illness as a neurological condition.

While the DOD finally acknowledged that people with chronic, undiagnosed illnesses were likely exposed to multiple chemical agents overseas, affected veterans struggled for years to get VA benefits.

The VA previously estimated that 44% of veterans who served in the Persian Gulf War had medical conditions commonly referred to as Gulf War sickness, and that those deployed to Southwest Asia in the years that followed could suffer from similar problems, according to the Office of Government Accountability.

However, the GAO found that the VA rejected about 83% of the 102,000 Gulf War illness claims it received between 2010 and 2015. The approval rate for GWI was about three times lower than that of all other medical issues, the GAO wrote in its 2017 report.

Office of Government Accountability
Screenshot via Government Accountability Office.

“Gulf War illness is not always well understood by VA personnel,” the GAO researchers wrote in the report, and suggested that medical examiners could benefit from training on the disease.

Haley’s latest study was funded by the DOD and VA. He said he hoped the results would speed up the search for a better treatment.

But Chacon, who is currently conducting a study on the use of neurostimulation to relieve pain associated with GWI, warned that veterans should not expect immediate real-life impacts after new findings are published. . She pointed out that the process of doing studies, replicating research, and getting to the stage where doctors can act on the results is extremely slow. But the research can be extremely meaningful for veterans who have suffered for years from an unexplained illness.

“I see my patients burst into tears when they are finally confirmed to have a legitimate illness due to their stay in the Gulf region,” she said. “It’s very cathartic.”

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