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Cause Of Mysterious Gulf War Syndrome Finally Uncovered, Major New Study Claims

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Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

clockMay 11 2022, 16:55 UTC
Gulf war.
Zhurong is helping uncover the watery secrets Mars is holding close to its chest. Image Credit: China National Space Administration (CNSA)

New research claims to have “solved the mystery” of what causes Gulf War syndrome. Just as many suspected, a study published today concludes that the nerve agent sarin was largely responsible for the much-debated condition.

Gulf War syndrome, or Gulf War Illness (GWI), describes the chronic multisymptom illness that affects hundreds of thousands of military veterans who fought in the bloody Persian Gulf War in 1990. Symptoms can vary, but they tend to include fatigue, muscle pain, “brain fog,” memory issues, cognitive problems, insomnia, rashes, and diarrhea. However, what causes it has been hard to pin down with PTSD, biological and chemical weapons, and depleted uranium all proposed previously. 

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Reporting in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives today, scientists at the University of Texas Southwestern studied 508 veterans with Gulf War syndrome and 508 deployed veterans who did not develop the illness, discovering that those with exposure to sarin were significantly more likely to develop the condition. 

For further proof of their hypothesis, they studied a gene (PON1) that plays an important role in breaking down the nerve gas in the body. They found that veterans with less effective variants of the PON1 gene were more likely to fall sick. The weaker the variant, the more common the syndrome. 

Other chemical exposures may potentially explain a small handful of cases, the researchers say, but this is some of the most robust causal evidence on the cause of Gulf War syndrome ever produced. 

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“Quite simply, our findings prove that Gulf War illness was caused by sarin, which was released when we bombed Iraqi chemical weapons storage and production facilities,” lead researcher Dr Robert Haley, Professor of Internal Medicine and Director of the Division of Epidemiology at UT Southwestern, said in a statement sent to IFLScience.

“There’s no other risk factor coming anywhere close to having this level of causal evidence for Gulf War illness."

The Persian Gulf War kicked off in August 1990 after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded the neighboring oil-rich Kuwait in order to pay off the country's debts from the Iran-Iraq War. The move was met with international condemnation, eventually leading to the US, the UK, and other nations launching a military conflict against Iraq. 

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The underlying cause of Gulf War syndrome has been intensely debated over the past few decades with explanations ranging from emissions from oil well fires to exposure to depleted uranium. Some have even suggested it may be linked to a vaccine given to the soldiers. Many of these explanations have since been widely ruled out. For instance, a previous study by Dr Haley and this team found that inhaling depleted uranium played no role in the illness. This led them to suspect that sarin gas exposure was the most likely candidate. 

Sarin gas is a human-made chemical that has no taste, odor, or color. Due to its potency as a nerve agent, it’s been used as a chemical weapon. It was infamously released on to the Tokyo subway system in 1995 by Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo.

The chemical works in a similar way to certain insecticides by interfering with the normal signaling between nerve cells. In short, sarin will stop certain enzymes from clearing up used neurotransmitters after they've sent their message, meaning they will remain lodged between neurons continuing to fire signals over and over again. This results in aggressively twitching muscles, streaming eyes and nose, vomiting, and the evacuation of the bowels. Those who have been exposed to high enough concentrations will eventually struggle to breathe and can suffocate to death. All in all, very unpleasant. 

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The researchers of the latest study will help to inform further research into the plight of Gulf War veterans, many of whom still suffer without help to this day. 

“There are still more than 100,000 Gulf War veterans who are not getting help for this illness and our hope is that these findings will accelerate the search for better treatment,” explained Dr Haley.


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