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Health & Wellness

New study confirms sarin gas as the cause of Gulf War illness

Gulf War  U.S. Marine Helicopter   Allied Troops  Tanks
Peter Dejong/ASSOCIATED PRESS
/
AP
A Marine Cobra gunship files over a column of allied tanks during the battle for Khaf ji on Thursday, Jan. 31, 1991 at Saudi Arabia on the Saudi-Kuwait border. Iraqi and coalition forces continue a second day of fighting in the first major ground engagement of the Persian Gulf war. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Researchers have tried for nearly three decades to prove the environmental toxin sarin gas caused Gulf War illness in about 250,000 service members from the Persian Gulf War.

KERA’s Sam Baker talked about the study with Dr. Robert Haley, director of the epidemiology division and a professor of internal medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

About the sarin gas theory

The idea that sarin nerve gas, a low-level nerve gas, from our bombing of the Iraqi chemical weapons production and storage facilities - that was the number one thought of all the veterans who were there.

Since then, the problem has been that many studies that have been done were just not conclusive. Each had defects that made people doubt it, and no study got everything right.

Over the years, we put in place all the building blocks that would be needed for the definitive study. And then over the last seven or eight years, we finally pulled it off. Here we are. We have an answer.

What convinced you that sarin gas was the culprit and not mental health issues, as some believed?

One of our early studies in 1988 brought in a group of sick veterans and well veterans, and we got a blood sample and measured the gene that we know from many previous studies protects people and experimental animals and so forth from nerve gas. There's a strong form of the gene and a weak form.

We found people with Gulf War illness were the ones with the weak form of the protective gene. They're the ones that had very low protection or a greater susceptibility to nerve gas. But that wasn't really enough to be really convincing because you need a study showing the interaction between the gene and the actual exposure in the veterans. That's what took us 20 more years to work out. 

Are those affected service members still feeling the impact of Gulf War illness?

The vast majority of them are. As they were starting to come home, they started getting sick, and then large numbers were lining up at their medical tents, all with the same symptoms.

The military thought it was an epidemic of some infectious disease, but, obviously, they didn't find it.

So when they came home, more and more began developing kind of a delayed onset illness — 90% to 95% probably have remained with those symptoms ever since.

What will the study results mean for those service members?

It will hopefully generate more of a uniform view of what the cause was because if you know the cause, you can discover then how that cause affects the brain. Then you can design a treatment to interrupt that process. 

I think it will also help in the medical response to these veterans. I think this will create a greater sense that this really is a war wound, not a psychological reaction. So we won't treat it with psychotherapy anymore. 

RESOURCES:

Researchers Think They've Found the Cause of Gulf War Illness

UTSW Study News

Sarin Gas/Gulf War Illness study

Invited Perspective: Causal Implications of Gene by Environment Studies Applied to Gulf War Illness

Interview highlights were lightly edited for clarity.

Got a tip? Email Sam Baker at sbaker@kera.org. You can follow Sam on Twitter @srbkera.

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