Gulf War Syndrome and How It May Affect Veterans Today
Gulf War Syndrome is a collection of potentially debilitating symptoms that Gulf War veterans may experience. This includes Desert Storm veterans, Desert Shield veterans, and any veteran who has served during the Gulf War-era. The Department of Veteran Affairs categorizes the condition as “chronic multi-symptom illness,” or sometimes simply as “undiagnosed illnesses.”(1)
Gulf War Syndrome (GWS) is also known as ‘Desert Storm Diseases’ or simply ‘Gulf War Illness.’ This condition includes symptoms that have been reported by U.S. military veterans, press, and government employees of the first Gulf War (as early as August 1990).
Veterans from every country that made up the Coalition forces have been affected. In the US alone, more than 110,000 cases had been reported by 1999, according to official government sources. It is estimated that it may affect as many as 30% of the men and women who served during the conflict. While the exact cause remains unknown, the same study found that veterans who experience these symptoms also experienced a loss of brain matter. (1)
There is even a report relating to military personnel in Kansas developing flu-like symptoms and chemical sensitivities after handling archived documents returned from the Gulf War. (1)
Do Veterans Need to Prove a Military Service Connection?
Gulf War Veterans, such as Desert Shield and Desert Storm veterans among others during the Gulf War, who meet certain criteria do not need to prove a connection between their military service and illnesses in order to receive VA disability compensation. The VA presumes certain chronic, unexplained symptoms existing for six months or more are related to Gulf War service without regard to cause. These presumptive illnesses must have appeared during active duty in the South West Asia theater of Military Operations or by December 31, 2021, and be at least 10% debilitating.(2)
These illnesses include:
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – a condition of long-term and severe fatigue that is not relieved by rest and is not directly caused by other conditions.
Fibromyalgia – a condition characterized by widespread muscle pain. Other symptoms may include insomnia, morning stiffness, headache, and memory problems.
Functional gastrointestinal disorders – a group of conditions marked by chronic or recurrent symptoms related to any part of the gastrointestinal tract. Functional condition refers to an abnormal function of an organ, without a structural alteration in the tissues. Examples include; irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), functional dyspepsia, and functional abdominal pain syndrome. Undiagnosed illnesses with medical conditions that may include but are not limited to: abnormal weight loss, fatigue, cardiovascular disease, muscle and joint pain, headache, menstrual disorders, neurological and psychological problems, skin conditions, respiratory disorders, and sleep disturbances. (2)
In the UK, veterans of the 2003 conflict began reporting symptoms identical to those reported by service members of the first war, shortly after they returned from duty. The symptoms reported by veterans include but are not limited to:
- Persistent Headaches
- Muscle Aches/Pains
- Neurological Symptoms – e.g. tingling and numbness in limbs
- Cognitive Dysfunction – short-term memory loss, poor concentration, inability to retain information
- Mood and Sleep Disturbances – Depression, Anxiety, Insomnia.
- Dermatological Symptoms – Skin Rashes, Unusual Hair loss.
- Respiratory Symptoms – Persistent Coughing, Bronchitis, Asthma
- Chemical Sensitivities
- Gastrointestinal Symptoms – Diarrhea, Constipation, Nausea,
- Cardiovascular Symptoms
- Menstrual Symptoms
Note: This list does not reflect all symptoms, as they vary widely.
You have probably noticed that these symptoms are remarkably similar to those attributed to chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple chemical sensitivities, and other environmental illnesses. This similarity hasn’t gone unnoticed, which is why many people, including healthcare professionals and researchers, are coming to the conclusion that all these illnesses share some common causes and etiologies. (3)
What Causes Gulf War Syndrome?
There were many factors present in the Gulf during the war that could have caused this condition. It is likely that a combination of these factors together is what led to the illness.
Potential Causative Factors
- Infectious Diseases – A number of infectious agents were present in the Gulf, but medical records generally show that they weren’t a major problem for personnel due to extensive precautionary measures. Of course, many infectious agents may lie dormant without causing acute illness. The most common infectious agents present were thought to be cutaneous travelers, diarrhea, sand-fly fever, and malaria. One unique infectious disease has been linked to the Gulf war deployment: Leishmaniasis. Leishmaniasis is a parasitic disease found in parts of the tropics, subtropics, and southern Europe. Leishmaniasis has several different forms. CL is transmitted through the bite of an infected female phlebotomine sand fly but can also occur after accidental occupational (laboratory) exposures to Leishmania parasites. (3)
- Biological Weapons – Exposure to biological warfare agents has been put forward as a possible causative factor in Gulf war syndrome. However, no evidence that such an agent was deployed has been found. It should be noted that Iraq was known to be experimenting with the use of anthrax and an organism responsible for gangrene. There is also the possibility that Iraq deployed bio-toxins, which are toxins produced by living organisms such as bacteria. Endotoxins, those given off when a cell dies, can produce similar effects to chemical toxins/weapons and do not cause infectious disease as a living organism would. (3)
- Chemical Weapons – As with biological agents, chemical warfare agents have also been suggested. There is more concern here however as it is known that a number of Iraqi facilities containing chemical agents were hit during the air and ground offensives which could have led to low-level exposure to Coalition troops. (3)
Other Chemical Agents – Besides possible exposure to chemical warfare agents, the coalition troops were constantly exposed to chemicals whose use is considered safe. It must be noted, however, that they were just the type of chemicals reported to cause symptoms in multiple volatile organic compounds.(3)
Potential Chemical Causes
Organophosphate Pesticides – Organophosphates are the basis of many insecticides, herbicides, and nerve agents. The United States Environmental Protection Agency lists organophosphates as very highly acutely toxic to bees, wildlife, and humans. Recent studies suggest a possible link to adverse effects in the neurobehavioral development of fetuses and children, even at very low levels of exposure. (3)
Pyridostigmine Bromide – A drug given to troops to counteract chemical warfare agents. (3)
CARC – Chemical agent resistant coating is a specialized form of automobile paint, designed to prevent chemical warfare agents leaching onto a vehicle’s finish. According to manufacturers’ data sheets, chronic overexposure to the paint’s vapor can lead to asthma-like symptoms.
Prolonged exposure can permanently damage the brain, nervous system, liver, and kidneys. (3)
Fuel – Gulf War veterans often recall an association between diesel and petrochemical fume exposure and symptoms during service. Many suspect these exposures may be the cause of their ongoing health complaints after the war. (3)
Decontamination Solutions – Decontamination solutions were widely used in the gulf to sterilize vehicles, equipment, etc. The decontamination agent used most widely in the first gulf war was decontamination solution 2 (DS-2). DS-2 is an effective decontamination agent but is highly caustic and is known to damage equipment, pollute the environment and cause personal injury, according to experts. (3)
Oil Well Fire Smoke – The retreating Iraqi army ignited approximately 600 oil wells in February 1991 which burned for about 9 months. These fires produced massive amounts of thick smoke which sometimes drifted to the ground level causing increased exposure to ground troops. When this occurred, the air pollution was far greater than would be experienced in the average traffic-congested western city. (3)
Vaccinations – Troops sent to the Gulf were given a combination of vaccinations in a short period of time. In total, US servicemen may have received as many as 17 different vaccines, including live vaccines (polio and yellow fever) as well as experimental vaccines that had not been approved (anthrax, botulinum toxoid) and were of doubtful efficacy. In the UK, the Ministry of Defense has declared only 10 vaccines given but reports from veterans and official documents seem to tell a different story. (3)
Depleted Uranium (DU) – During the Gulf war, depleted uranium was used for the first time, both in-vehicle armor and offensive munitions, as well as in various other components of vehicles and other equipment. It was used widely due to it being cheap and widely available as a by-product of nuclear energy and nuclear weapon production. In Operation Desert Storm over 350 metric tons of DU was used, with an estimate of 3-6 million grams released in the atmosphere. Inhaling particles of depleted uranium may have contributed to sickness after the war due to DU’s chemical and radiological toxicity and mutagenic and carcinogenic properties. Internal contamination with inhaled DU has been demonstrated by the elevated excretion of uranium isotopes in the urine of the exposed veterans 10 years after the Gulf War. (3)
What Can Gulf War Veterans Do?
If you are experiencing a chronic multisymptom illness and served in the 1990’s Gulf War, it’s important to determine whether your experience matches the above criteria. You may be eligible for VA benefits for your condition.
(1) 7 Veteran Health Concerns We Never Talk About; Written by Anna Schaefer
Medically Reviewed by Peggy Pletcher, MS, RD, LD, CDE on November 9, 2015
(2) U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; Public Health; Military Service Connection, Available at http://www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/gulfwar/medically-unexplained-illness.asp
(3) The Environmental Illness Resource; Gul War Syndrome, Available at http://www.ei-resource.org/illness-information/environmental-illnesses/gulf-war-syndrome/