Worldwatch: Pesticides, Not Depleted Uranium, Linked to Gulf War Illness

WASHINGTON, DC, January 15, 2001 (ENS) - In his final report before the change of administration, the Defense Department's special assistant for Gulf War Illnesses, Dr. Bernard Rostker, told reporters that pesticides, but not exposure to depleted uranium (DU), may be "among the potential contributing agents" to illnesses among Gulf War veterans.

Armed Forces personnel who served in the Gulf War in 1990 and 1991 have been complaining of health problems ever since. Gulf War veterans have died, been paralyzed, had children with birth defects, have emitted semen which burns their wives, and have been disabled with nausea and chronic fatigue.

The U.S. Armed Forces used depleted uranium munitions and tank armor for the first time during the Gulf War. The greatest potential for medically significant DU exposure occurred with those veterans who were in or on tanks and other armored vehicles when the vehicles were hit by DU munitions and in veterans who worked in or on U.S. vehicles or sites contaminated with DU, the Pentagon says.

A study by the Rand Corporation commissioned by the Department of Defense, "did not find a plausible link" between depleted uranium and health problems, Dr. Rostker said Friday at a special Pentagon briefing.


Rash on the arm of a Gulf War veteran (Photos courtesy American Gulf War Veterans Association)
The Institutes of Medicine, charged by Congress to review the possible causes of Gulf War illnesses, "reported on their first four potential risk factors, one of them being depleted uranium," Dr. Rostker said. "In their review of uranium and soldiers who have been involved with depleted uranium, we do not see a health risk," he said.

The Institutes of Medicine reviewed the potential risk factors of depleted uranium, low levels of the nerve agent sarin, pyridostigmine bromide (PB) pills used to guard against nerve agents, and vaccinations against biological weapons.

The only thing the Institutes of Medicine were prepared to rule out was the impact of depleted uranium on lung cancers and on renal disease from heavy metal toxicity, Dr. Rostker said.

DU is a substance licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Defense Department abides by the license requirements by providing "certain safeguards in terms of handling and the like," he said.

To help evaluate the possible health effects of exposure to pesticides on Gulf War veterans, Rostker's office commissioned Rand to conduct a survey of Armed Forces personnel to see how the average service member used pesticides.


Explosions during the Gulf War may have released chemical and biological agents, some veterans say.
Rand also reviewed the existing scientific literature on the health effects of pesticides used by service members during the Gulf War. Rand worked with the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Defense in carrying out the survey of 2,005 veterans selected to be statistically representative of the U.S. service population in the Kuwait.

Rand's survey suggests that pesticides, specifically acetylcholinesterase inhibitors such as organophosphates and carbamates, could be among the potential contributing agents to some of the undiagnosed illnesses reported by Gulf War veterans. The Defense Department now says exposure to these pesticides cannot be ruled out as a potential contributing factor to some of these undiagnosed illnesses.

Researchers identified 64 different pesticide products containing 35 active ingredients that were used during the Gulf War. The survey considered 12 active pesticide ingredients that Gulf War veterans were exposed to - five organophosphates, three carbamates, two pyrethroids, one organochlorine, and one repellent, DEET.

In addition to repellents, fly baits, pest strips, and area sprays, the general military population was exposed to pesticides applied in the field by professionally certified and trained applicators and field sanitation teams. Professional applicators applied pesticides as sprayed liquids, sprayed powders, or fogging pesticides.

Dr. Ross Anthony of Rand said the both the survey and literature review point to pesticides in a class known as acetylcholinesterase inhibitors - both organophosphates and carbamates - as being linked to the symptoms of Gulf War illness.

Dr. Ross Anthony of Rand said the both the survey and literature review point to acetylcholinesterase inhibitors - both organophosphates and carbamates - as being linked to the symptoms of Gulf War illness.


Gulf War veterans gather in Washington, DC to demand recognition and treatment for their illnesses. Summer 2000.
"Acetylcholinesterase is critical to regulating nerve signaling, and we find that acetylcholinesterase inhibitors do present in the literature chronic symptoms that have been reported by some Gulf War veterans," Dr. Anthony told reporters. "You can find symptoms similar to those you see in Gulf War veterans - fatigue, muscle and joint pain, headaches, cognitive problems and sleep disruptions. Further, we note that there is a reported biological role of acetylcholinesterase in the symptoms that provide some plausibility for the illness that we see in Gulf War veterans," he said.

Enzymes that metabolize acetylcholinesterase inhibitors are important in mitigating these effects, said Dr. Anthony, who pointed out that "individuals can differ in the activity or form of these enzymes" and these individual differences may have determined which veterans would become ill from exposure to these chemicals and which would remain symptom free.

The survey found that 31 percent of the veterans questioned had used more than one pesticide, and nine percent of the population used three or more. One third of those surveyed did not use pesticides, and about another third used only one.

Interactions between the pesticides and other chemicals to which veterans were exposed during the Gulf War, in particular to pyridostigmine bromide (PB) pills, used to guard against nerve agents, the nerve agents themselves, and solvents might also be responsible for the illnesses.

"We did not actually look at interactions of these chemicals," Dr. Anthony said.


Captain Joyce Riley
But Captain Joyce Riley, a trained flight nurse who reentered the Air Force Reserve in 1991 after initial service in the 1970s, says Gulf War illnesses are the result of biological weapons provided by the United States to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as late as 1989.

"They were used on our troops," says Riley, who became ill after six months of active duty missions on a C-130 aircraft.

"The basic fact is that biological agents were used on our troops," she says. "Chemical agents were used on our troops. Germ warfare was used on our troops - using biologicals that were made in the United States of America. It was made in Houston, Texas and Boca Raton, Florida. It was passed through the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and through companies such as American Type Culture Collection (ATCC) in Maryland," she says.

"Our troops did not know what to expect, nor were they protected. We later found out that we had no adequate biological/chemical detection capability," Riley says.

The possibility that germ warfare was perpetrated on U.S. troops was not studied in these most recent reviews.

The environmental exposure and health risk assessment report is available online at: The Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses is online at:

The American Gulf War Veterans Association website can be found at: