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Toxic Chemicals Blamed for Gulf War Illness
Date:11/17/2008

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In reaching its conclusions, the panel reviewed evidence about a wide range of possible environmental exposures that could cause Gulf War illness. That review included hundreds of studies of Gulf War veterans, research in other groups of populations, animal studies of toxic exposures, and government investigations about events and exposures during the Gulf War, which began after Hussein invaded Kuwait.

Speculation about the causes of Gulf War illness has included exposure to depleted uranium munitions, vaccines, nerve agents and oil well fires.

The new report says the illness was caused by soldiers' exposure to certain chemicals, Steele said.

"When you put all the evidence together there are two chemicals that jump out as the main causes," she said. One is a drug called pyridostigmine bromide, which is a cholinesterase inhibitor that was given to the troops to protect them against nerve gas.

"It turns out that people who took those pills have a higher rate of Gulf War illness," Steele said. "And people who took more pills have even higher rates of Gulf War illness."

In addition, soldiers were exposed to pesticides that were also cholinesterase inhibitors, Steele said. "The strongest evidence points to pyridostigmine bromide and pesticides as causal factors," she said. "This type of illness has not been seen after other wars."

While pyridostigmine bromide is still in use, its use is more limited than it was in the first Gulf War. It's currently being used against one type of nerve agent, but is not being given out on a widespread basis, Steele said.

"The Gulf War was the only time a lot of people used this drug," she said.

Steele added that the U.S. military has also cut back on its use of pesticides since the 1991 war.

There are other factors that, while not likely causes of Gulf War illness, can't be ruled out, Steele said. These include exposure to nerve agents, e
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