(Beyond Pesticides, September 20, 2011) A study supported by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command links pesticide exposure and other factors to Gulf War illness (also referred to as Gulf War Syndrome), an illness characterized by a wide range of acute and chronic symptoms experienced by veterans and civilians after the 1991 Gulf War. The study, “Complex Factors in the Etiology of Gulf War Illness: Wartime Exposures and Risk Factors in Veteran Subgroups,” is published in the September 19, 2011 online edition of Environmental Health Perspectives.
The researchers designed the study to compare the characteristics of deployment and the risk factors experienced by veterans participating in various theaters of the Gulf War. Among personnel who were in Iraq or Kuwait, where all battles took place, four exposures were independently associated with GWI: taking PB pills, being within one mile of an exploding SCUD missile, using pesticides on the skin, and exposure to smoke from oil well fires. For veterans who remained in support areas, GWI was significantly associated only with personal pesticide use, with increased prevalence (OR=12.7, CI=2.6-61.5) in the relatively small subgroup who wore pesticide-treated uniforms, nearly all of whom also used skin pesticides.
Among 64 pesticide products used during the Gulf War, the “pesticides of concern” identified by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) include permethrin, a synthetic pyrethroid used to impregnate fabrics that persists through multiple launderings, as well as the insect repellent DEET (N,N-dimethyl-m-toluamide) and lindane powder, an organochlorine used in delousing enemy prisoners of war and provided to some troops for personal use. All of these active ingredients are registered for use by the general public today.
Lindane is used by prescription to treat lice and scabies. Lindane is a neurotoxic insecticide linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, reproductive effects and organ damage. Permethrin is registered for use in mosquito control, including mosquito-treated outdoor clothing, home insect control, and in agriculture. It is a neurotoxic insecticide linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, reproductive effects, and organ damage. DEET is a commonly used mosquito repellent, which is quickly absorbed through the skin and has caused effects including severe skin reactions, including large blisters and burning sensations. Laboratory studies have found that DEET can cause neurological damage, including brain damage in children. Previous studies have shown synergistic effects that induce symptoms similar to Gulf War illness through combined exposure to both DEET and permethrin, a likely combination in real-world scenarios because of their use in mosquito control.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs describes Gulf War illness as a prominent condition affecting Gulf War Veterans with symptoms that include fatigue, headaches, joint pain, indigestion, insomnia, dizziness, respiratory disorders, and memory problems. According to the National Academies, approximately 250,000 of the 697,000 veterans who served in the 1991 Gulf War are afflicted with enduring chronic multi-symptom illness.