navigation...see below for text links
by Jon Palfreman, producer, 'Last Battle of the Gulf War'
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 conclusions.

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 web site 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 chemicals.


As the sample of the letters in JAMA show, many scientists view Haley's studies as deeply flawed. Epidemiologists criticize his original sample as being biased:

--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 curable.

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 the organism.


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 order. 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.


home . 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 . press reaction

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

PBS Online