In June 1997, Congressman Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) wrote a letter to the
Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses (PAC). Sanders
was critical of the PAC's findings that stress was the likely cause of
veterans' health problems. Sanders urged PAC to consider the work of a
handful of so-called 'independent scientists,' some of whom had come to different
The caliber of these researchers varies widely: some have little or no track
record in biomedical research and have had great difficulty obtaining research
funding. Other scientists cited have long and distinguished careers. Foremost
among these is Robert Haley, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas
Southwestern Medical Center. In January, 1997, Haley published a series of
articles in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). These
studies and the ensuing criticism can be accessed at
JAMA's web site
(Click on Search and type in 'Haley.')
One example of the critical response to Haley is Dr. Philip J. Landrigan's
editorial "Illness in Gulf War Veterans" (Access this by going to
JAMA's web site . Click on "publishing
search feature" at top, then on the search page, type in Landrigan's name and
title of his editorial.) Dr. Haley also has a
with more of his research work.
Working with the Seabees (a Naval construction division in the South),
Dr. Haley reorganized the reported symptoms into six symptom clusters (primary
syndromes) using "factor analysis." He then administered questionnaires to the
Seabees asking them which of a number of toxins they thought they were exposed
to in the Gulf. Finally, he took a small subset (23 people) of the worst
affected and ran a battery of neurological tests. Haley claims to have
demonstrated an association between exposures to mixtures of chemicals like
sarin, pesticides and pyridostigmine bromide (as perceived by the vets), and
several of his symptom clusters. Moreover, he claims to have demonstrated that
accompanying the vets' symptoms are subtle neurological deficits. In short,
Haley claims to have found evidence that the vets are suffering from the
delayed neurological effects of exposure to the Organophosphate family of
As the sample of the letters in JAMA show, many scientists view Haley's
studies as deeply flawed. Epidemiologists criticize his original sample as
--A relatively small percentage (41%) of the group responded in his study,
leading to charges that it was not a representative group.
--His measure of exposure is based on subjective self-reporting of the
vets. Critics ask how a vet would know whether he had been exposed to very low
levels of sarin in the war and they question the reliability of 7 year old
memories about vaccines and pills. Haley has made little effort to confirm
these exposures with physical evidence like records etc .
--Finally, many neuroscientists argue he has used the wrong set of neurological
tests for the hypothesized disorder (See for example Anthony Amato's letter
JAMA; see also FRONTLINE's interview with Dr. Haley).
Another scientist who is cited in Congressman Sanders' letter to the PAC is
Garth Nicolson, who works with his wife Nancy Nicolson in their own institute
in California. Their theory differs from Dr. Haley's in that they believe Gulf
War Syndrome (or at least a good part of it) is caused by an infectious agent
mycoplasma fermentans. incognitus. Their theory is that this common organism
was modified by Saddam Hussein's scientists, adding genes from the AIDs virus.
This biological weapon was then delivered to allied troops in scud missiles.
The Nicholsons also believe the organism can be successfully eliminated with
large doses of certain antibiotics. In short, they say Gulf War Syndrome is
Despite Nicolson's long reputation as a microbiologist, scientists are
highly skeptical about this theory. Nevertheless, the DOD is funding a joint
study with Nicolson to see whether his special "gene tracking"
technique can be validated. This might form the basis for a trial in which
vets could be screened for mycoplasma, to see whether those worst affected had
Given the vagueness of the symptoms and the difficulty of determining exposures
seven years after the war, some scientists argue that some basic science is in
Relatively little is known about the effects of low levels of organophosphates,
including nerve agents. Animal research is underway to examine whether there is
any plausibility to the idea that exposure to very small amounts of nerve
agent, say, can produce no effects at the time but lead to chronic effects
years later. Other animal research is examining the suggestion that
combinations of chemicals can act synergistically. The results of this basic
research may lead to new hypotheses about Gulf War illnesses or, they may lead
to a dead end.
join the discussion .
analyzing the major theories .
five interviews .
the veterans .
a closer look .
examining the media's role .
a guide to the site .
comparing gulf veterans' health with other veterans .
tapes & transcripts .
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