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Thursday, 25 May, 2000, 05:29 GMT 06:29 UK
Chemical cocktail 'made Gulf troops ill'
tank and camels in desert
Many who served in 1991 are convinced GWS exists
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

A US scientist has found evidence that suggests the combination of chemicals administered to Gulf War troops may have made them ill.

The scientist, Professor Mohamed Abou-Donia, says he will soon prove that "the cocktail effect of chemicals" causes real physical damage.



There is no doubt in my mind that what we are seeing in the veterans is real

Prof Mohamed Abou-Donia
His work appears to show that Gulf War Syndrome (GWS), the range of symptoms experienced by many Gulf veterans, really does exist and is not largely psychological.

The news comes as other research is published showing that the brain scans of Gulf veterans reveal significant brain-cell loss in some troops.

Professor Abou-Donia, of Duke University, North Carolina, also says the effect of chemicals acting in combination may explain some cases of degenerative disease and asthma.

Fatal experiments

He was speaking to BBC Radio 4's environment programme Costing the Earth, which investigated the effect of chemicals in daily life.

Professor Abou-Donia tested the three chemicals administered to troops in the Gulf on chickens and rats.


professor in lab.
Professor Mohamed Abou-Donia is developing a test
The chemicals were anti-nerve gas pills, an insect repellent called Deet, and Permethrin, an insecticide. All three are entirely harmless on their own.

He described what the experiments showed: "We used each one of these chemicals alone, even at very high dose levels.

"We found there was no toxicity whatsoever, no poisoning, no damage.

"When we used two of these chemicals together, we saw some neurological dysfunctions and some behavioural problems.

"When we had the three chemicals together, we saw not only a neurological deficit but paralysis, and some animals even died."

Professor Abou-Donia is convinced of the reality of GWS, whose symptoms typically include chronic fatigue, infertility, and mental health problems, despite continued military scepticism that it exists.

Protein leak

"There is no doubt in my mind that what we are seeing in the veterans is real.

"We are trying to develop the diagnostic tools to determine whether there is neurological damage in the veterans by running a blood test.


gulf soldier being injected
Troops were given several injections
"We look for specific antibodies produced against proteins that are normally in the brain. When there is brain damage, these proteins leak into the blood stream and the blood forms antibodies against them.

"This test will hopefully show whether an individual complaining of neurological problems has brain damage or not."

Professor Abou-Donia believes it is not only Gulf veterans who are at risk from the effects of similar "chemical cocktails".

"In the US about 3% of children have asthma. And this could be related to chemical exposure or other biological factors.

"And most diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's have a genetic component, and also an environmental component."

Another doctor interviewed by the programme is Keith Eaton, who practices in London. He is concerned at the paucity of data on chemicals in everyday use.

Groups at risk

"Staggeringly, 64% of drugs, 81% of food additives and 88-90% of commercial chemicals do not have minimum acceptable toxicity data individually.

"Virtually none has been looked at acting in combination with another chemical.


soldiers in NBC suits
The military authorities are not convinced by the research data
"I think this is a giant uncontrolled experiment with mankind."

Dr Eaton believes from 5% to 10% of people in the UK may be at particular risk of illness from the effect of combinations of common chemicals and their genetic make-up.

"The particularly vulnerable groups are pregnant women, unborn children and young infants.

"If they are exposed to a chemical load, the effect on the next generation may be greater.

"The fact that something hasn't happened so far doesn't mean that it necessarily won't."

'No convincing evidence'

The UK Government's health department told Costing the Earth it recognised that mixtures of chemicals could exert "very much greater toxicity" than they would in isolation.

"But such cases are very rare. There is no convincing evidence for such effects at low, environmentally relevant exposures," it said.

The evidence of brain-cell loss, published in the journal Radiology, found that sick Gulf veterans had 20% fewer cells in the brain stem than healthy colleagues, 12% fewer in the right basal ganglia, and a loss of 5% in the left basal ganglia.

The study's lead author, Dr Robert Haley, said: "When you sustain such losses, you get a host of subtle malfunctions of all systems of the body."

Costing the Earth, presented by Alex Kirby, is broadcast at 2100 BST every Thursday on BBC Radio 4 until 1 June 2000.

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15 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Household chemicals health warning
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