The high incidence of illness in Persian Gulf War veterans can be traced to their exposure to toxic chemicals such as nerve agents and pesticides, say researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine.
Symptoms reported by deployed personnel include fatigue, muscle pain, memory problems, trouble sleeping, rash and breathing problems. These personnel had a higher rate of chronic, multi-symptom health problems than non-deployed personnel, or those deployed elsewhere.
"This evidence suggests that exposure to this certain class of chemical may be linked to elevated risk of health problems," said Beatrice Golomb, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of medicine at the UC San Diego School of Medicine.
"Health issues among Gulf War veterans have been a concern for nearly two decades. Now, enough studies have been conducted, and results shared, to be able to say with considerable confidence that there is a link between chemical exposure and chronic, multi-symptom health problems," said Golomb. "Furthermore, the same chemicals affecting Gulf War veterans may be involved in similar cases of unexplained, multi-symptom health problems in the general population."
Chemicals known as acetylcholinesterase inhibitors (AChEis) and organophosphates (OP), nerve gas chemicals, sarin and pesticides were included in the study, together with carbamate pyridostigmine bromide (PB) pills originally given to service members to protect against potential nerve-agent exposure. (Note: As a result of an earlier RAND corporation report by Golomb outlining the risks of using such pills, military policy has been changed.)
The study linked exposure to each of these chemicals with the chronic, multi-symptom health problems in 25 to 33 percent of returning Gulf War veterans.
"There is evidence that genetics have something to do with how a body handles exposure to these chemicals," said Golomb. "Some people are genetically less able to withstand these toxins and evidence shows that these individuals have higher chance of suffering the effects of exposure."
Specifically, illness is linked to lower activity of enzymes that detoxify AChEis, due to genetic variants The enzymes known to be involved are paraoxonase (PON) for OPs, including sarin, and butyrylcholinesterase (BChE) for PB.
Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), March 18, 2008, vol. 105, no. 11, pp. 4295-4300