UPDATE - GULF WAR SYNDROME
January 7, 1997
Charles Krause covers a new report on the mysterious illnesses stemming from the Gulf War.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Since the Gulf War ended in 1991, thousands of veterans have complained about a variety of chronic health problems.
SPOKESMAN: Do your teeth chatter with the chills or not?
CHARLES KRAUSE: Their ailments range from muscle pains and rashes to fatigue and memory loss, illnesses that many of the vets believe are the results of their exposure to biological or chemical weapons. But even after numerous studies the cause or causes of what's become as Gulf War Syndrome are still uncertain. From the beginning the Pentagon denied that any U.S. troops were exposed to nerve gas or other chemical agents, leading some vets to suggest there'd been a cover-up. Then last June the Pentagon reversed itself, announcing that it had, indeed, found evidence suggesting that as many as 20,000 U.S. troops may have been exposed to chemicals from an Iraqi ammunition depot detonated as the war ended. Meanwhile, in response to a rising chorus of complaints from veterans groups and others, in March 1995, President Clinton appointed a special advisory committee to study all aspects of the Gulf War controversy. It was that committee which reported its findings at the White House today.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Joining us now is the chairwoman of the President's special committee on Gulf War illnesses, Dr. Joyce Lashof. Dr. Lashof is a medical doctor and former dean of the School of Public Health at the University of California-Berkeley. Dr. Lashof, thank you for joining us.
DR. JOYCE LASHOF, President, Commission on Gulf War Illnesses: It's a pleasure to be here.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Let's go right to the bottom line. Did your committee determine whether there is a medical condition that can properly be called Gulf War Syndrome?
DR. JOYCE LASHOF: Our committee found that veterans are suffering from illnesses that can be attributed to their service in the Gulf. We cannot identify, nor have any of the studies done by the Department of Defense or the Veterans Administration Registry, a single unique syndrome, but, rather, a series of self-reported symptoms that are occurring, but there is not a specific constellation that is uniform among all of them. But they are ill as a result of their service.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Were you able to determine whether any of the U.S. servicemen in the Gulf were exposed to chemical or biological agents?
DR. JOYCE LASHOF: Well, it appears from the information we have concerning the detonation of the bunker at Kamasia that there was exposure to low levels of chemical warfare agents at that site. There were other--
CHARLES KRAUSE: Kamasia being the Iraqi--
DR. JOYCE LASHOF: The Iraqi--
CHARLES KRAUSE: --ammunition--
DR. JOYCE LASHOF: --ammunitions dump that we blew up after the war. This occurred after the war. We went in and blew up this dump, unaware that they had stored chemical weapons. And it was only later that it was learned that in that bunker there were chemical weapons and that those released the agents into the air when the demolition occurred.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Were you able, though, to determine--so, in other words, you were able to determine that some U.S. soldiers may have been exposed to some chemical weapon agents from that weapons depot?
DR. JOYCE LASHOF: Right. That is correct.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Were you able to determine whether or not some of the illnesses that have been described and reported are the result of that exposure?
DR. JOYCE LASHOF: There is no evidence that such low level exposure causes illness, long-term illness. We know that when there is exposure to a large concentration of nerve gases, obviously, that causes very acute symptoms. And following those acute symptoms, you can see some long-term effects. But those effects don't seem to resemble the symptoms that the veterans are complaining of now. There have been no really good studies of what a level of exposure that is so low as not to cause any symptoms could actually cause disease or long-term complaints that they are showing.
CHARLES KRAUSE: So there's no formal finding here one way or the other.
DR. JOYCE LASHOF: Well, I think we can say that the evidence at this point doesn't support low level chemical exposure as a cause of illness. Now we do suggest that to put this issue to rest there should be further research on the results of low level exposure, and we've identified a couple of populations that we think it is worthwhile to follow.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Populations meaning what?
DR. JOYCE LASHOF: You know people, obviously. What we're thinking about is in Japan, as you know, there was the release of nerve gas into the subway several years ago, and a number of Japanese died, and a number were made very ill and were hospitalized. But there had to have been a fair number of other Japanese who were exposed at that time who had no symptoms at all. We ought to know what is their health now. It would be worthwhile to take a look at that group of Japanese and find out whether they are having any symptoms.
CHARLES KRAUSE: To compare them to--
DR. JOYCE LASHOF: Well, to identify whether or not--not necessarily to compare them to our soldiers, but to identify whether a population known to be exposed to low level of chemicals are really ill. The other group is people who work with pesticides. We know that some have become ill from exposure to a high concentration of phosphate chemical, which is very similar to the kind of nerve gas used in chemical warfare agents. But we have not seen reports of the kind of symptomatology the veterans have from workers who were not acutely ill from higher exposures. That's a population we ought to look at too.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Now, as you know, many of the veterans from the Gulf War have been extremely critical of the Pentagon. In fact, that's one of the reasons your committee was created. You too in this report are critical of the Pentagon. What was your finding?
DR. JOYCE LASHOF: Well, we were critical of the Pentagon in one area and one area only. And I think it's important to emphasize that the government has done a very good job of setting up physical examinations, of treating veterans as they come in, of launching a whole series of studies that should give us the kinds of answers we're looking for, but the one area that we did fault them in was that they did not take very seriously the need to determine whether or not there were releases of chemical agents during--not only during the war but rather after the war as well and, indeed, whether people were exposed to these agents.
CHARLES KRAUSE: But that, indeed, is the central issue here, is it not?
DR. JOYCE LASHOF: I'm afraid it's become a central issue, and that's unfortunate because if we thought that people were ill because of their exposure, then it would be a central issue. It has become a central issue because it's become symptomatic to the veteran's mind of how the government has responded to their complaints. So that we felt that it was extremely important to separate the issue of whether one was ill from exposure from the issue of whether there was exposure. So that our committee from the very beginning said let's look at this in stages, let us first find out whether there was any release of chemical. Secondly, if there was a release, who was there, how many people were exposed, and thirdly, we'll look at the question of whether or not they've become ill as a result of that. At this point we have no evidence that they've become ill as a result of that. We know that there was some exposure at Kamasia. We know that there were alarms that went off at other times during the Gulf War, and we believe that those need to be investigated to find out whether there were any other significant releases that could have exposed any of our other soldiers.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Dr. Lashof, we'll have to leave it there. Thank you very much for joining us.
DR. JOYCE LASHOF: You're welcome.