LONDON: A mysterious set of symptoms dubbed “Gulf War Syndrome,” affecting hundreds of thousands of soldiers who served in the 1991 conflict, may have been caused by nerve agents, according to a new study by researchers at Portsmouth University in the UK.
Those affected are said to suffer from a range of acute and chronic symptoms including fatigue, headaches, joint pain, indigestion, insomnia, dizziness, respiratory disorders and memory problems.
Scientists believe these symptoms are rooted in neurological impairment, previously thought to be the result of exposure to uranium-tipped anti-tank munitions used widely against Iraqi forces in the war. But the Portsmouth researchers found no traces of uranium in the bodies of those affected.
They said their findings “conclusively prove” that none of them were exposed to any significant amounts of the radioactive substance.
“For decades, medics and scientists have been looking for the elusive cause of Gulf War illness,” said Prof. Randall Parrish, one of the lead researchers of the study.
“That depleted uranium is not, and never was, in the bodies of those who are ill at sufficient quantities to cause disease will surprise many, including sufferers who have, for 30 years, suspected depleted uranium may have contributed to their illness.”
Parrish said the most likely cause of the illness is the widespread but low-level exposure of soldiers to the sarin nerve agent, which may have been compounded by the use of anti-nerve agent medication and pesticides to prevent malaria among troops.
“Finding causes is a nebulous game when you have so many options to blame,” he added. “The allies’ own activities destroying an Iraqi nerve agent cache or spraying pesticides liberally on troops could be seen in hindsight as an inadvertent ‘own goal,’ and one to be avoided in future conflicts.”
But while the radioactive munitions do not appear to have affected the health of foreign soldiers, the same may not be said for the local Iraqi and Kuwaiti populations.
“Depleted uranium munitions were used in the conflict as an effective weapon to destroy Iraqi tanks, and its use has littered Iraq and Kuwait with uranium contamination, potentially affecting local people,” Parrish said.
Studies have proved that the munitions can cause cancer and birth defects, and that their use in the Gulf War has directly impacted the health of Iraqi locals.
The NGO Coordination Committee for Iraq estimated that 300-800 tons of depleted uranium were used against Iraqi forces in the war, and that this may be connected to “a sharp rise in congenital birth defects and cancer cases in Iraq.”
The group said the use of depleted uranium “is also connected to the recent emergence of diseases that were not previously seen in Iraq, such as illnesses in the kidney, lungs and liver, as well as a total collapse of the immune system.”