By Kim Sengupta
A landmark investigation into the causes of Gulf War syndrome has concluded that the illness was caused by troops being given nerve gas pills and exposed to pesticides.
The study in the United States, mandated by Congress and described as one of the most wide-ranging undertaken on the subject, found that the most likely cause of the illness was pyridostigmine bromide (PB) in protection pills given to American and British troops to counter the Soman nerve gas Saddam Hussein could have used in the 1991 Gulf War. US soldiers were also affected by neurotoxins in pesticides extensively used in preparation for operations.
The findings led to immediate calls for official action on both sides of the Atlantic. In the UK, troops’ welfare groups said the British Government must do more to help those affected and carry out its own comprehensive research. The British Government has insisted there is not enough scientific evidence so far to prove the existence of Gulf War syndrome. But it has agreed to offer war pensions to members of the forces who became ill after serving in the first Gulf war. About 6,000 British service personnel, out of 55,000 mobilised for the conflict, are reported to be suffering from the symptoms of Gulf War syndrome. Many were medically discharged from the forces and have had to give up subsequent civilian jobs due to ill health. The Royal British Legion demanded that a payment of £10,000 be made to each veteran suffering from the ailment in compensation for a failure of duty of care.
The 450-page report, commissioned by an American veterans’ organisation, was handed to James Peake, the Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs, yesterday in Washington. The researchers from the Boston University School of Public Health said it was unlikely that the syndrome was caused by other possible factors such as depleted uranium from US and British shells, the detonation of chemical weapons and fumes from blazing Kuwaiti oil wells.
In Britain, soldiers given the nerve-gas pill but not sent to the Gulf complained of suffering from the illness. The MoD said British troops had been given the same pills as their American counterparts. But a spokesman added that UK personnel had not been exposed to pesticides containing neurotoxins.
The US report found Gulf War illness “fundamentally differs” from stress-related syndromes described after other wars. It said: “Studies consistently indicate that Gulf War illness is not the result of combat or other stressors, and that Gulf War veterans have lower rates of post-traumatic stress disorder than veterans of other wars.”
Sue Freeth, the director of welfare at the Royal British Legion, said: “For veterans, some of the mystery behind what has caused their conditions is over. For years, veterans have been told that their illnesses are psychological. This report concludes that this is not the case, but the result of exposures to very specific and harmful toxins while serving in the Gulf. The UK Government must not delay any further. It should build on these results and immediately co-operate with the US to find ways of treating these lamentable conditions.”
The Legion’s parliamentary adviser, Lord Morris of Manchester, who sat as a co-opted member on the Congressional committee of inquiry into the Gulf War, said: “US spending on research into Gulf War illnesses exceeds $400m, some £260m. That compares with £8.5m in the UK. That is why this report’s findings are so important.”
The MoD said last night: “The Medical Research Council’s 2003 report on Gulf veterans concluded that ‘there is no evidence from UK or international research for a single syndrome related specifically to service in the Gulf’. Any veteran in the UK who suffers from ill-health as a result of their service is compensated through the War Pensions and Armed Forces occupational pension scheme, regardless of the existence of Gulf War syndrome as a discrete pathological entity.”
Case study ‘We had all been given these pills’
*Gary Williams was a 21-year-old sapper with the Royal Engineers when he was given his vaccination before being deployed for the Gulf War in April 1990. He spent three months in Saudi Arabia. Two years later he developed the symptoms which led to a medical discharge from the Army in 1994. He was not exposed to other possible causes, such as the fall-out from destruction of chemical weapons, depleted uranium and smoke from Kuwaiti oil wells.
“Those of us suffering from this illness have often talked about what common experiences we had, and we had all been given these pills,” said Mr Williams. “People given this vaccination but never deployed also developed the same problems.” Mr Williams, now 39, of Weaversham, Northwich, Cheshire, cannot work because of the recurring illness, which included stomach pains, headaches and debilitating fatigue. He is paid a military pension which is related to his health problems.