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Chemical Exposure Linked to Gulf War Veterans’ Illness

(Beyond Pesticides, March 13, 2008) Exposure to certain chemicals, including pesticides and nerve agents, explains the high rates of illness in Persian Gulf War Veterans, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Veterans from the 1990-91 conflict have a higher rate of chronic, multi-symptom health problems than either non-deployed personnel or those deployed elsewhere. Symptoms routinely reported by these veterans include fatigue, muscle or joint pain, memory problems, trouble sleeping, rash and breathing problems.

Due to the findings, the study author, Beatrice Golomb, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, warns of the potential risk to civilians exposed to pesticides.“Health issues among Gulf War veterans have been a concern for nearly two decades. Now, enough studies have been conducted, and results shared, to be able to say with considerable confidence that there is a link between chemical exposure and chronic, multi-symptom health problems,” said Dr. Golomb. “Furthermore, the same chemicals affecting Gulf War veterans may be involved in similar cases of unexplained, multi-symptom health problems in the general population.”The study synthesized evidence regarding a class of chemicals known as acetylcholinesterase inhibitors (AchEs), including organophosphate (OP) and carbamate pesticides, sarin and pyridostigmine bromide (PB).

OPs and carbamates were aggressively used in the Gulf to control sand flies and other insects. Some military personnel were exposed to sarin, a chemical nerve gas, when demolishing Iraqi munitions. The nerve gas protection pill PB was ingested by military personnel as a preventive measure during the war. (Due to a previous report by Dr. Golomb detailing concerns about these pills, military policy has been changed in the US and elsewhere.)

The study linked exposure to each of these chemicals with the chronic, multi-symptom health problems in 25 to 33 percent of returning Gulf War veterans. “There is evidence that genetics have something to do with how a body handles exposure to these chemicals,” said Dr. Golomb. “Some people are genetically less able to withstand these toxins and evidence shows that these individuals have higher chance of suffering the effects of exposure.” Specifically, illness is linked to lower activity of enzymes that detoxify AChE, due to genetic variants.Among those service members given PB pills as a preventive measure, those with the mutations that reduced their ability to detoxify the pills were at significantly higher risk of illness, according to Dr. Golomb.

Previous studies have shown genetic variants of these enzymes are also associated with increased rates of some neurological diseases, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Dr. Golomb says this may explain the elevated levels of ALS seen in Gulf War veterans. Nearly one million servicemen and women were deployed to the Gulf between August 1990 and February 1991. Veterans started reporting health problems within months of returning. In 2004, a federal panel of medical experts set up by the Veterans Administration concluded that many Gulf War veterans suffer from neurological damage caused from exposure to neurotoxic chemicals, including pesticides, that inhibit the production of AchE.

In 2003, two studies showed that an abnormally high number of Gulf War veterans have become sick and are dying from ALS. According to both studies, the disease, which affects roughly 30,000 people in the U.S. between the ages of 50 and 70, is impacting this subsection of veterans at more than two times those in the general population. Additional studies have found elevated birth defect rates tied to Gulf War service and that pesticides cause a genetic effect linked to attention deficit disorder and Gulf War syndrome. In 2001, the Defense Department admitted that pesticides may be to blame for Gulf War Syndrome. “These findings carry important implications for current members of the armed forces as well as the general public, suggesting that exposure to these pesticides in any setting may increase risk for impaired neuropsychological function and poor health” said Dr. Golomb.

Some of the chemicals linked to these multi-symptom illnesses continue to be used in agriculture, and at homes and offices for pest control in the United States and around the globe. Studies not related to the Gulf War showed that agricultural workers exposed to organophosphate pesticides had 10 times the number of health symptoms as those not exposed. Whether for residential, commercial, or agricultural uses, according to Beyond Pesticides’ Gateway on Pesticide Hazards and Safe Pest Management, commonly used carbamate pesticides used in include: aldicarb, carbaryl, fenoxycarb, and propoxur; and commonly used OPs include: acephate, bensulide, chloryprifos, diazinon, dichlorvos, malathion, parathion, propetamphos, and trichlorfon.


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