Foggy Index of the Gulf War Syndrome

May 08, 1994  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Gulf

More than two years after the end of the Gulf war, newspapers and airwaves are filled with stories about Desert Storm veterans falling ill with a variety of perplexing illnesses. This, in turn, has prompted congressional leaders to hold several hearings on the so-called Gulf War Syndrome.

"The Pentagon just doesn’t get it," said House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Lane Evans, Illinois Democrat, at the hearing he sponsored. "Thousands of veterans are suffering without knowing what ails them." But some people think that it is Mr. Evans, his fellow congressmen and the media who just don’t get it.

Dr. Barry Rumack, a toxicology expert who is a clinical professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and director emeritus of the Rocky Mountain Poison Center in Denver, said: "I wouldn’t call this a syndrome at all, because to me a syndrome is a disease, and I’ve seen no evidence of that." Dr. Rumack added: "There is no relationship between events purported to have occurred there, actual or potential, and these illnesses."

The Gulf War Syndrome, known to some as Saddam’s Revenge, comprises a number of ailments that have been diagnosed in some of the 657,000 men and women assigned to the Gulf region in 1990 and 1991. Among the symptoms attributed to the syndrome are aching muscles, irritability, fatigue, thick saliva, weight lost, weight gain, hair loss, sore gums, diarrhea, nausea, swelling, memory loss, labored breathing and headaches.

Much of the attention has focused on a single unit, the reserve 24th Naval Construction Battalion, stationed at Columbus, Ga., and the physician in charge of investigating their complaints, Dr. Charles Jackson of the Tuskegee V.A. Medical Center in Huntsville, Ala., who calls it "one of the great mysteries of the century."

Theories as to the specific cause or causes of the illness have ranged from 

the use of depleted uranium in American shells to fumes from burning oil fires to multiple chemical sensitivity, but by far most of the attention has focused on the most exotic possibility Iraqi use of chemical warfare agents.

Yet toxicology experts say the symptoms suggest just the opposite. Neither Americans nor their allies reported suffering from chemical weapons at the time of the conflict, although some of Dr. Jackson’s patients now say they suffered a burning sensation in their lungs after a Scud missile attack.

As Dr. Jackson told USA Today: "Suppose ... [the Iraqis] developed something that was insidious [that] they didn t need to incapacitate in the field, something that would get you when you got home."

Yet, one needn’t have graduated from West Point to realize that a weapon that doesn’t work until the war is over isn’t particularly helpful.

The Defense Department maintains that no allied soldiers were exposed to chemical weapons during the war. "We ve looked very carefully for common exposures," said Virginia Stephanakis of the Army surgeon general’s office, "and we can’t find [similarities] of any sort. The soldiers were in different places in Saudi [Arabia] at different times and doing different jobs."

An early Army study of 79 Indiana reservists who served in the Gulf and complained of a variety of symptoms found "no objective evidence for an outbreak of disease." It said: "Problems and symptoms like those found here would be expected to occur throughout the Reserve forces which deployed."

The report said that to the extent there were any abnormalities, they appeared to be related to the stress of being pulled quickly out of civilian life and sent to a war zone, then a few months later being abruptly thrust back into civilian life. "The only common denominator," said Miss Stephanakis, "is the complaints are overwhelmingly in Reserve and [National] Guard troops."

Indeed, a wide, ongoing Army study comparing 5,300 Gulf war veterans with 5,300 veterans who served elsewhere during the same period found that so far, on the whole, there has been no difference in illnesses. The only exceptions found were that twice as many Gulf veterans showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress, and about 15 percent more showed signs of alcohol dependence.

Phantom epidemics in which massive numbers of people fall ill upon hearing of other people s sickness are well documented. Earlier this year, more than 2,000 children in and around Cairo, Egypt, suddenly fell ill in an epidemic of fainting, which some blamed on chemical and biological agents.

Researchers from the government and the World Health Organization found no poisons of any sort associated with the victims and declared the problem was psychological rather than physiological.

Such episodes seem to follow a general pattern. When people hear that a chemical or technology (such as power lines or cellular phones) could be making them sick, two things happen. First, some individuals who are already sick assume their illnesses were caused by the chemical or technology. Second, others begin to feel sick because they have been told they should be. Such behavior has been documented repeatedly.

As the Army’s Virginia Stephanakis put it: The Gulf war syndrome is "complicated by politics." The same, unfortunately, is true for the country as a whole science and medicine increasingly are hostage to politics and hysterics.