Friendly Fire

Gulf War Syndrome and How It All Began

Hundreds of such approved shipments in the mid- to late 1980s were recorded by the Department of Commerce. One of the more bizarre features of some of the Gulf War illnesses is that they appear to be transmittable through sexual contact. More than 20,000 spouses and partners of Gulf War vets have reported experiences of such symptoms as chronic fatigue, menstrual irregularities, rashes, joint and muscle pain, and memory loss. Transmission by biological agents could help explain such reports.

As early as August 1990, the Defense Department was preparing to inoculate U.S. troops and support personnel with vaccines designed to counteract nerve gases, botulism, and anthrax. But there was no known antidote against sarin, tobun, and VX nerve agents. Anecdotal evidence had suggested to Defense Department scientists that pyridostigmine bromide (PB) might be effective against soman. PB had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration only for treatment of people suffering from myasthenia gravis, a fatal deterioration of the muscles. The drug had never been widely tested on healthy humans.

The Defense Department was warned by its own scientists that PB should never be used when people might be exposed to sarin, since it would merely magnify the latter's potency. Use of PB under any circumstances would also produce severe side effects. There were 35 experiments with the drug with U.S. service people before the Gulf War. Observed side effects included nausea, vomiting, slowed heart rate, diarrhea, increased salivation, increased bronchial secretions, and pupil constrictions. In one of the first tests of the drug on a U.S. Air Force pilot, the man suffered cardiac arrest almost immediately. After that incident army researchers said in August 1990 that PB should not be used by individuals with "asthma, peptic ulcers, liver, kidney, heart disease or hypersensitivity to PB and related drugs." Another memo prepared by Defense Department medical researchers in the same month said that "because of the side effects associated with PB, all subjects will be admitted to Lyster Army Hospital as in-patients so that they will be medically monitored during periods of testing. A drug will be available at the test site to counteract the possible side effects."

On top of that, the Defense Department had been warned by James Moss, a researcher working for the Department of Agriculture, that when PB is used in combination with organo-phosphates, the toxicity of both chemicals significantly increases. Moss's research focused on diethyltoluamide, a chemical familiar to many American campers, particularly on the Outer Banks and in the Upper Midwest as DEET, the active ingredient in anti-mosquito sprays. It's in the cockroach and ant spray Raid too. Moss found that when DEET is used in combination with PB, the former becomes seven times as toxic as when it is used by itself. PB becomes four times as toxic, Moss also found, when it is used in combination with DEET. DEET and its chemical relatives were widely used in the Gulf War by Allied forces against sandflies, mosquitoes, and scorpions. The chemicals were rubbed on the skin, sprayed in the air, and saturated on tents. Moreover, all of the uniforms issued to Gulf War personnel were impregnated with permethrin, a pesticide made by Dow. Permethrin has been found to double the toxicity both of DEET and of PB. The same trend was found with other pesticides used in the war, including lindane, widely used as a treatment for lice.

The patent on DEET is co-owned by the USDA with the S.C. Johnson Co., which manufactures it under license. Indeed most of the pesticides now in use in U.S. agriculture were developed in U.S. CBW programs.

At a 1994 hearing before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Moss testified on the toxic combo of PB and DEET. Soon thereafter he sent a fax to S.C. Johnson Co. expressing his concern. Two days later USDA officials called in Moss and told him to quit his research, and keep quiet about his findings. "If I was to talk about my ideas about DEET toxicity," Moss told reporters, "I [understood that] I could have trouble finding a job and could be blackballed." In an attempt to create a paper trail and to protect himself as a whistle-blower, Moss detailed these attempts to censor his research in internal memos to his superiors. That same summer Moss's research contract with the USDA expired and his eight-year term with the department came to a summary end. The director of Moss's laboratory at the USDA said Moss had not been renewed because he had engaged in unauthorized research.

In an effort to protect Moss, Sen. Jay Rockefeller wrote to then-USDA Secretary Mike Espy in May, June, and July of 1994, trying to save Moss's job and to ensure funding for his research. Espy didn't answer until Moss's warnings had been aired on CBS News on October 14 of that year. And then Espy merely said that the USDA would not continue this line of inquiry, but would transfer all of Moss's data to the Department of Defense.

Aside from Moss's work, the Army had known as early as 1986 that there was a PB-pesticide connection, and that the two had a mutually and destructively enhancing effect when used in combination. Though most of the relevant documents were destroyed by the Army, a memo screening a potential subject for research (an Air Force pilot called Craig Clark) notes that he was an acceptable candidate because "there is no sensitivity to pesticides or recent significant exposure."

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