While psychological and physical ailments have been found in higher rates among military personnel deployed to the Gulf War arena, there is no difference between veterans who were exposed to low levels of chemical weapons and those not exposed, says Linda A. McCauley, Ph.D., of Oregon Health and Science University.
"Our findings suggest that veterans who were possibly exposed to very low levels of chemical warfare agents do not differ from other deployed veterans on any health indicator, including self-reported medical diagnoses, hospitalization or disability," the researchers write in the September/October issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
The study included data collected through telephone interviews with 1,779 military personnel, 653 who had served in the Khamisiyah area (where chemical exposure is believed to have occurred), 610 deployed during the Gulf War but not in an area with chemical exposure and 516 not deployed during the conflict. All those surveyed lived Oregon, Washington, California, Georgia and North Carolina at the time of the interview.
Respondents who had been deployed to the region were more likely than non-deployed personnel to have high blood pressure, heart disease, a slipped disk or a pinched nerve. They were also more likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder and be hospitalized for depression. The deployed veterans were much more likely to report being in fair to poor health or say that they had moderate to severe impairment compared with their non-deployed counterparts, says McCauley.
There was also a trend for deployed subjects to report more cases of cancer, although this number did not reach statistical significance.
"Our study, along with other cross-sectional studies of [Gulf War] veterans, has been limited in the ability to form conclusions regarding the potential risk of cancer due to small sample size and limited number of cases of cancer," notes McCauley.
The researchers also note that while their model assumed anyone within 50 kilometers of the site where the chemical weapons were destroyed could have been exposed to low levels of the chemical warfare agent sarin, more complex models suggest this model may not be completely accurate.
"If the chemical warfare agents were not restricted to the 50-km Khamisiyah area, but dispersed more widely, health effects would be expected in a much larger proportion of veterans than the group that served as the sample in this investigation," they say.
Senior author, Peter Spencer, Ph.D., notes that the lack of detectable adverse health effects is relevant to communities living nearby U.S. facilities that will shortly engage in the destruction of aging munitions containing the same chemical agents that were destroyed at Khamisiyah. The release of small amounts of CW agents from the incinerators are not likely to cause illness in those who live nearby.
The research study was carried out by OHSU's Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology (CROET) with assistance from a grant to CROET Director Peter Spencer Ph.D. from the U.S. Army Medical Research and Material Command.
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