The mystery of ‘Gulf War Syndrome’, the often debilitating, chronic and multi-symptom illnesses reported by troops returning from the 1990-1991 Gulf War, may have been solved – with the finger of blame being pointed at the bombing of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons arsenal.
Thousands of British and American troops reported fatigue, muscle pain, ‘brain fog’, memory issues, cognitive problems, insomnia, rashes, and diarrhoea on returning from the conflict.
Post-traumatic stress disorder, the use of biological and chemical weapons, vaccines given to troops, and even the use of weapons containing depleted uranium have all been blamed for the symptoms, but no definitive conclusions ever arrived at.
Now, however, US research in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives has concluded the most likely cause was troops being exposed to the chemical nerve agent sarin, which was released into the atmosphere as a result of chemical weapons’ stores being bombed.
Scientists at the University of Texas Southwestern studied 508 veterans with Gulf War Syndrome and 508 deployed veterans who did not develop the illness.
They concluded those who had been exposed to sarin were significantly more likely to develop the condition.
Health of military veterans
They studied a gene called PON1, which plays an important role in breaking down sarin in the body. Veterans with less effective variants of the PON1 gene were more likely to fall sick, with the weaker the variant, the more common the syndrome.
Although exposure to other chemicals within the battlefield environment could also have caused some cases, the researchers concluded that exposure to sarin was the most likely cause generally for Gulf War Syndrome.
In a statement to the science website IFLScience, lead researcher Dr Robert Haley, professor of internal medicine at UT Southwestern, said: “Quite simply, our findings prove that Gulf War illness was caused by sarin, which was released when we bombed Iraqi chemical weapons storage and production facilities.
“There’s no other risk factor coming anywhere close to having this level of causal evidence for Gulf War illness,” he added.
The hope now is that veterans still suffering from the after-effects of the conflict will be able to get better targeted help and treatment for their symptoms, he said.