New Study in Gulf War Illness Series Is Released

Gulf War oil fields photo courtesy of Kurt Lange ( December 5, 2000, RAND released the fifth in a series of analyses commissioned by the Department of Defense of possible causes of illness among Gulf War veterans.  The new study, A Review of the Scientific Literature as it Pertains to Gulf War Illnesses, Volume 5: Chemical and Biological Warfare Agents, summarizes the scientific literature on what is known about the health effects of exposure to chemical and biological warfare agents.

The report does not examine the issue of whether U.S. troops who served in the Gulf War were actually exposed to chemical or biological warfare agents. That subject has been extensively examined by others.

The CW/BW study, prepared by Dr. William Augerson, a RAND consultant, investigated the health effects of most of the chemical warfare agents and toxins that Iraq might have possessed at the time of the war, including skin-damaging agents (lewisite, phosgene oxime and mustards), toxins (ricin, trichothecene mycotoxins, aflatoxins) and nerve agents (sarin, soman, tabun, cyclosarin, VX). Anthrax and botulism will be reviewed in a later volume in the RAND series.

Dr. Augerson reached four key conclusions:

  1. High dose exposure to any of the agents reviewed would have produced severe health effects. Those effects would have required clinical treatment or would have resulted in death. However, symptoms consistent with such large dose exposure were not reported during the Gulf War.

  2. Low-level exposure could have produced "mild acute" clinical symptoms that could have been overlooked or misinterpreted as arising from other common sources, such as irritation from sand, upper respiratory infections, asthma, gastroenteritis or the flu. On clinical grounds alone, it is not possible to rule out the occurrence of such low-dose exposures or their possible contribution to symptoms that some veterans experienced after the Gulf War. However, it is difficult to believe that exposures affecting large numbers of persons would escape clinical recognition and no clustering of such symptoms was reported during the Gulf War.

  3. There are no references in the literature that report clinical symptoms developing years after CW exposure. However, about 50% of the health problems reported by Gulf War veterans developed after such an interval.

  4. There is almost no data or evidence on the long-term effects of exposure to doses below that which would cause acute symptoms. The possibility that such exposure could possibly produce chronic health effects cannot be ruled out.

These findings are consistent with the conclusions of most other Gulf War investigating bodies.

The report goes on to suggest a number of areas for continued research, notably research into the effects of low levels of exposure to chemical warfare agents and toxins. Some of this research is already underway.