Originally created 08/28/99

Gulf War illness still a mystery



WASHINGTON -- A presidential panel looking into Gulf War illnesses said Friday that it can't pinpoint causes of the ailments and recommended further studies into whether there are genetic reasons for why some troops got sick when others did not.

In an interim report, the Special Oversight Board on Gulf War Illness ruled out one suspected cause -- exposure to depleted uranium used in U.S. munitions. The panel agreed with independent studies that found no evidence for the uranium link.

The board, headed by former Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., issued a series of recommendations designed to keep better track of those with diagnosed and undiagnosed Gulf War illnesses, make clearer information available to the public and lead to better federal coordination.

While the Defense Department "has conducted a credible investigation into the causes of Gulf War illnesses," the board "has not been shy about pointing out areas needing further improvement," Rudman said.

For instance, the report suggested that the Pentagon office on Gulf War illnesses had engaged in "mission creep," expanding its responsibilities and publishing "information papers" that didn't relate directly to Gulf War illnesses.

The board also suggested declassifying certain intelligence reports on the war that might bear on the illnesses.

In a series of what it called "observations," the panel said:

-- More extensive study into whether genetic predisposition to certain illnesses may explain why some Gulf War veterans with similar exposures are ill while others are not.

-- The government should try to correlate signs and symptoms of Gulf War illnesses with "an age- and gender-matched general population sample."

-- For future wars, the Pentagon should consider fitting soldiers with electronic identification badges so that satellites can track and record battlefield movements.

The report sought to settle the debate over the danger of depleted uranium, which coats U.S. artillery shells and bombs designed to penetrate tank armor. On impact, the shells create an airborne dust.

Some veterans groups have suggested hundreds of thousands of the men and women who served in the Gulf War had come in contact with depleted uranium. Some claimed to suffer from unexplained illnesses or increased cancer rates.

But studies by the Pentagon and Rand Corp., an independent research organization that specializes in military affairs, failed to find a link between depleted uranium and these illnesses, suggesting radiation levels in the substance are relatively low.

"The board agrees with the conclusion that the available evidence does not support claims that depleted uranium is causing the undiagnosed illnesses some Gulf War veterans are experiencing," the report said.

One veterans' group, the National Gulf War Resource Center, denounced the panel's findings on depleted uranium as "incomplete whitewash and failure." The panel ignored research suggesting that the material "settles in the bone, brain, kidney, lung, liver and testicles," the group said.

The panel was also criticized for not reaching any conclusions on whether contaminants from oil well fires in Kuwait contributed to the illnesses. The panel said it would deal with that issue in its final report.

As many as 30,000 veterans of the war have complained of mysterious maladies, including fatigue, joint pain and memory loss, that they claim are related to their service in the Gulf.

A final report is due in May.