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.
The 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."
Haley 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.
The 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.
Those 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 "false alarms."
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 gas.
"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.
The 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.
Haley said 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.