WASHINGTON -- U.S. bombings of Iraqi munitions
factories in January 1991 released a plume of sarin gas that traveled
more than 300 miles to affect American troops in Saudi Arabia, although
military officials claimed at the time that chemical alarms triggered by
the gas were false, a study released today shows.
The Jan. 18,
1991, bombings of the munitions plants in Nasiriyah and Khamisiya blew a
plume of sarin gas high above a layer of cold, still air -- also called
the boundary level -- and into a swift wind stream that carried the gas
to Saudi Arabia, said the study conducted by researchers Robert Haley
and James Tuite and published in the journal Neuroepidemiology.
gas plumes, the researchers said, can be blamed for symptoms of Gulf
War illness, the mysterious ailment that has affected more than 250,000
veterans of the war.
The gas set off repeated chemical weapons
alarms at U.S. troop points in Saudi Arabia, the report said, but
commanders said they were false alarms, because if the troops had been
hit with sarin gas, there would have been casualties. There were no
casualties, although U.S., Czech and French systems all detected traces
of sarin and mustard agent.
Compounding the effects of the
sarin were Scud missile attacks on the bases by Iraqi forces, Haley and
Tuite reported, because the missiles would stir up the airborne toxic
gases and force the sarin to drift back into the base level of air,
which would set off the chemical alarms again.
The two researchers
investigated satellite images and weather charts from the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to determine the movements of the
sarin plume. Haley is the chief of epidemiology at the University of
Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, and Tuite is a former
Secret Service senior agent who has worked as an investigator for the
Pentagon and the Government Accountability Office.
Their report shows satellite images depicting a yellow patch of gas in the air above where U.S. troops were based.
"You can see it," Haley said. "This is simple. ... There it is. There's no doubt."
and Tuite paired the weather data with survey results from about 8,000
troops they polled with support from the Departments of Defense and
Veterans Affairs. They found a direct relationship between the number of
times troops heard the chemical alarms and the severity of their Gulf
War illness symptoms, their report said.
The VA did not respond to a request for comment.
VA has previously challenged research attributing Gulf War illness to
sarin, because there was no way to determine the amount of gas to which
troops were exposed. Since no troops died at the time from exposure to
the gas, and the munitions factories were so far away, U.S. forces and
their commanders assumed something else had set off the chemical alarms,
Haley said. In some cases, troops were told the alarms were activated
by burning trash.
"This is the dose," Haley said. "The more alarms you heard, the longer you were exposed to the gas."
Veterans of suffering from Gulf War illness tend to fall in three categories:
• Syndrome 1, or cognitive and depression problems.
• Syndrome 2, or confusion ataxia, which is similar to early Alzheimer's disease.
• Syndrome 3, or severe chronic body pain.
with syndromes two and three had a highly significant correlation
between alarms and symptoms, while Haley said Syndrome 1 does not appear
to be connected. Haley called syndromes two and three "incapacitating,"
and said those veterans feel tired or just "not good" for no
explainable reason. Recent research shows that Gulf War illness, the
series of symptoms ranging from headaches to memory loss to chronic
fatigue, is due to damage to the autonomic nervous systems. The
autonomic nervous system controls automatic functions, such as breathing
or a person's heartbeat.
Troops say their exposure to the gases
was compounded by their lack of chemical protection suits. Each person
was equipped with two suits, which were good for only one wearing each.
Many soldiers and Marines stopped bothering to put on their gas masks
and suits, if they had any fresh ones left, after hearing several of the
While scientists have pointed at achl-inhibitors,
such as sarin, bug spray and anti-nerve agent pills as contributors to
Gulf War illness, Haley he said the main cause is probably the sarin
"I think the other chemicals may have compounded it," he
said, but scientists hadn't been looking at low-dose, long-term sarin
exposure because they didn't know the cloud had traveled so far.
VA originally funded some of the Gulf War illness research but Veterans
Affairs dropped their project in 2010 after being accused of wasting
millions of dollars in research money. That came directly after a 2009
study from Haley showed that neurotoxins such as anti-nerve agent pills,
insect repellent and the nerve agent sarin caused neurological changes
to the brain, and that the changes seem to correlate with different
symptoms. Haley and Tuite used their own money and time to complete the
research before it was published in Neuroepidemiology, which only runs
research after it is peer-reviewed by other scientists.
the findings are important because it could help veterans gain benefits
from VA, and because it gives researchers a starting point for a cure.
It also could serve as a warning to countries such as Syria, which
security experts fear plan to use chemical weapons against insurgents,
because it's hard to determine where the chemicals will end up, he said.