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What causes Gulf War syndrome? An interview with Arnold Mann.


Q.: What is Gulf War syndrome?

A.: No one really knows what Gulf War syndrome is, because after 20 years, the underlying mechanism remains a mystery, mostly because of a lack of research funding by the government. What we do know is that 250,000 of the 700,000 soldiers who went over there came back sick and are still sick--those who are still alive; many have died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), cancer, and so on. And though the underlying cause of the "syndrome" is not known, the symptoms--chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, cognitive and memory impairment, chronic gastrointestinal problems, anxiety and sleep disorders--are very real and disabling.

Q.: How did Gulf War syndrome originate?

A.: Gulf War syndrome is what Dr. Claudia Miller has referred to as an entirely new disease mechanism, as mysterious to today's doctors as the germ theory of disease was to the Civil War doctors as they watched the troops dying from all these mysterious fevers. She calls this new disease mechanism toxicant-induced loss of tolerance, or TILT, whereby an initiating toxic exposure causes a person to become sensitive to everyday exposures that never used to bother them--everything from perfume to scented laundry detergents and air fresheners to smog, gasoline fumes, you name it. And that's what perpetuates these mysterious symptoms.

So how did Gulf War illness originate? After years of denial on the part of the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs (VA), we know that it was caused by the exposures our troops suffered on the battlefield. These included the oil fires that turned the skies black with petrochemical gases for months, the poisons breathed when our pilots bombed Saddam Hussein's chemical weapon depots, the pyridostigmine bromide tablets they took to protect against these poisons, the organophosphate pesticides sprayed inside the tents and on their clothing, which have since been banned, and the experimental anthrax vaccine they were given that had never even been tested in animals and that wreaked havoc on their immune systems. It was the most toxic battlefield of all time.

Q.: How is Gulf War syndrome diagnosed?

A.: Unfortunately, there is no blood test for this illness, and it does not show up on a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) Or computed tomography (CT) scan; however, brain scans by Dr. Robert Haley at the University of Texas have identified parts of the brain damaged by various Gulf War exposures. The key to diagnosing the illness at this point is recognizing the chronic symptoms for what they are--environmentally triggered--and tracing them back to what the person was exposed to during the war. And yet, the VA has diagnosed very few veterans with Gulf War illness. They still push it off to the symptoms, or simply call it "undiagnosed illness."

Q.: How is the syndrome treated with each type of exposure?

A.: The treatment of the syndrome does not vary from exposure to exposure. Rather, the strategy for the most part has been to simply treat the symptoms. Fibromyalgia, for instance, is often treated with medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.), such as Lyrica[R] [pregabalin] or Cymbalta[R] [duloxetine], with limited success.

Dr. Meryl Nass reports good results in treating disabling fibromyalgia with low-dose narcotics. This, she says, can be done safely with the right patients. She also says that relieving fibromyalgia can help to alleviate chronic fatigue; once pain is diminished, patients tend to have more energy. She also reports surprisingly good results with the thyroid hormone thyroxine. She has found that people with cognitive and memory posttraumatic stress disorder problems can benefit from Ritalin [methylphenidate], which is used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Acidophilus helps with chronic digestive problems.

Antioxidants, like CQ10, and vitamins A, C, and E, and vitamin [B.sub.12] are also considered important--they prevent damage to cells by free radicals, while glutathione helps the liver remove foreign chemicals, such as pollutants, from the body.

Dr. Grace Ziem, one of the leading physicians treating the chemically injured, including Gulf War veterans, uses a special blood test to discover what the patient is lacking in the way of specific vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other essential micronutrients. She then prescribes supplements to bring values up to normal ranges. Some environmental physicians employ detoxification methods, such as sweating out toxins in the sauna, as well as controversial desensitizing injections to raise the patient's tolerance to triggering substances.

But the treatment everyone is in agreement on is what Dr. Kaye Kilburn calls "The Three A's"--Avoidance, Avoidance, Avoidance. Patients need to identify and avoid things that are setting them off--making them sick. Thus, the home becomes a chemical oasis. This is the first strategy for sick Gulf War veterans and others who have become "chemically injured," and many have improved practicing the three A's, though it's no cure. Dr. William Rea, whose patients spend weeks at his chemical-free Dallas Clinic learning about their intolerances, has an environmental hygienist inspect their homes and advise them how to live chemical-free.

All of this being said, there is much lacking in the way of treatments for Gulf War illness. Mainstream medicine has all but given up on the chemically injured. Truly effective treatments will remain out of reach until the underlying mechanism for this disease is understood. Unfortunately, the research commitment is just not there to do this. Not from the VA, which has undermined all attempts by researchers to get studies going and keep them going, unless the researchers were pursuing the PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] angle, and certainly not from industry-- the chemical, insurance and petrochemical industries in particular, which have done everything in their power to keep chemical sensitivity labeled as psychosomatic in origin. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Q.: Why do some veterans of the Persian Gulf War experience a range of symptoms, or very specific and isolated health problems, or no illness at all?

A.: Gulf War illness, and the degree of it, is dependent on two things. First, there are the environmental exposures the individual veteran experienced during service. For instance, some were downwind to the chemical weapons being blown up at Khamisiyah, while others were not. Second is the susceptibility of the individual soldier, that is, genetics. This is also true of people working in a sick building. Some remain chronically ill long after they have left the building, while others do not, depending on their individual susceptibility. But in the case of the Gulf War veterans, the exposures were so extreme that many who might not have become sick under lesser exposures did get sick and remain sick to this day.

Q.: Does Gulf War syndrome have a connection with other wartime-related health problems, such as PTSD, fibromyalgia, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease)?

A.: For years the VA attributed the symptoms of Gulf War illness to PTSD--that is, the emotionally weaker vets got sick. This has since been disproven by scientific studies. It was caused by the wartime exposures. And yet stress still remains a common diagnosis by VA physicians.

With regard to substance abuse, Dr. Claudia Miller has pointed out that returning vets were unable to tolerate liquor, or cigarettes for that matter, as they used to. The vet who could drink his buddies under the table before the war found that single beer now hit him like a freight train. It has to do with chemical intolerance. How this plays into addiction varies with the individual.

Anxiety is common among vets suffering from Gulf War illness, Dr. Miller notes, because the toxic exposures they experienced during the war affect the brain's limbic system--the seat of the emotions, hence the short tempers and rise in domestic abuse among veterans. It is not all about PTSD; it has more to do with a chemical effect on the brain. Finally, there has been an increased incidence of Lou Gehrig's disease, as well as lupus and other immune-related disorders among Gulf War veterans. This may be due to the immune-stimulating effects of the anthrax vaccine as well as other factors.

Q.: Can Gulf War syndrome be passed through childbirth?

A.: There is no scientific evidence at this point of this being true among Gulf War veterans owing to a lack of research. It is, however, true of veterans who suffered Agent Orange exposures during the Vietnam War.

Q.: Does the Department of Veteran Affairs rule out toxic substances and low-dose exposures to depleted uranium as likely factors for the syndrome?

A.: This has not been ruled out; it has just not been ruled in. The jury is still out on depleted uranium as a cause or contributing factor in the development of Gulf War illness. Research on depleted uranium by civilian researchers has not been funded.


Q.: Has there been any litigation over this epidemic? What steps has our government taken to study, cure, or repatriate veterans?

A.: One law firm has attempted to sue the chemical companies that produced the nerve agents that we originally provided to Saddam Hussein and subsequently blew up. This suit is still active, but "barely," according Gulf War nurse Denise Nichols.

Q.: Is Gulf War syndrome a threat to the people living in areas that were once tainted with nerve agents and pesticides?

A.: While these agents may possibly have a lingering presence, of more recent concern is the threat posed by the garbage-burning pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the smoke from burning plastics, Styrofoam, paper, wood, rubber, waste, metals, chemicals, and oils, all mixed with jet fuel, have contaminated the air and sand at United States military installations since the invasion of these two countries. There just weren't enough incinerators; smoke from the pits hovered low over housing areas, and our troops have been coming back sick with chronic fatigue, chronic pain, and severe respiratory and neurological disorders. The airborne dust in Iraq and Afghanistan has been found to be laden with more than 150 kinds of bacteria as well as with titanium, iron, aluminum, lead, chromium, nickel, and other metals. Could these exposures result in the next wave of Gulf War syndrome?

Arnold Mann has been writing for a national audience for 25 years. His most recent investigative report: They're Poisoning Us: From the Gulf War to the Gulf of Mexico. 34th Street Press, 2011
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Publication:Nutrition Health Review
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jun 22, 2011
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