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American Forces Press Service

DoD to Notify Gulf War Vets on Latest Chem Agents Study

By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 27, 2005 The Defense Department is again sending letters to thousands of Gulf War veterans exposed to low levels of chemical agents contained in munitions destroyed at a weapons depot in Khamisiyah, Iraq, in March 1991.

A study released this week by the Institute of Medicine here concluded that veterans possibly exposed in that area appear to have a higher risk for brain cancer death than veterans who were not exposed. However, the study's authors said more research is needed to confirm their findings.

This letter is the third DoD is sending to update Gulf War veterans possibly exposed. Letters also were sent in 1997 and 2000 to inform veterans about developments.

Dr. Michael E. Kilpatrick, DoD's deputy director for deployment health support, said the purpose of the latest letters is to notify veterans whose units were in the possible hazard areas about the study and to remind them of medical services the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs can provide.

He said the letters won't recommend that veterans take any specific action, but will inform them on what to do if they feel affected. "If they feel fine, they don't need to do anything," he said. "We don't want them to get highly concerned about this study. It is a preliminary finding, and we will continue to investigate to better understand what this may or may not mean for their health."

Kilpatrick noted this is the first study saying there is a possibility of a long-term health effect. "We do not have 'cause and effect' relationship at this point," he said. "But we do want the veterans to know that this data is there, and we want them to know from us that we are committed continuing the investigation to follow-up, because we are concerned about their health."

The Defense Department first prompted the study in 1997 after it was learned that rockets and other munitions destroyed at Khamisiyah in 1991 contained nerve agents sarin and cyclosarin. During the study, Kilpatrick said, IOM researchers compared the causes of death in a group of 100,487 possibly exposed U.S. Army Gulf War veterans with those among 224,980 Army Gulf War veterans who were not exposed to nerve agents released during the demolitions.

He said the study found no difference in overall mortality or all cancer mortality.

Still, the study showed that exposed veterans were about twice as likely to have died from brain cancer as unexposed veterans, corresponding to roughly 12 excess deaths due to brain cancer among the 100,487 exposed veterans over a nine-year period.

Kilpatrick said that finding has puzzled researchers, because neither sarin nor cyclosarin is a known carcinogen. "Neither has been shown to cause cancer," he said. "It's too early to speculate as to what could cause the brain cancer among those in the study."

He noted that medical science has tied only one factor to brain cancer. "When you take a look at the causes of brain cancer, the only one that is really recognized is exposure to high levels of ionizing radiation," he said. "That doesn't mix with what our Gulf War veterans were exposed to in the Gulf War."

He also pointed out that the length of time between the possible exposure and illness among the exposed Gulf War veterans is much less than is usual for development of brain cancer. "This period is generally 15 to 20 years for brain cancer. This study has only evaluated the first nine years after this possible exposure," he said.

Kilpatrick said a lot more research needs to be done before any conclusion can be drawn on whether chemical agents at the site can be linked to brain cancer among Gulf War veterans. He said he emphasized that the notifications are part of the Defense Department's commitment to keeping veterans informed about health issues related to their deployment.

"The message is that we care about our veterans' health, and we are continuing to investigate to try and understand what the long-term health effects are," he said. "We are working closely with the Department of Veterans Affairs to understand this issue, and as we get more information, we will continue to share it with those concerned."

Kilpatrick said one comforting aspect of the study is that the overall death rate from diseases, injuries and other causes for Gulf War veterans was similar between those whose units may have been exposed and those whose units were not.

"This study overall shows that the death rate of those in the Gulf is no different for military personnel," he said. "We have done other studies looking at death rate of those in the Gulf to those who didn't deploy, and it is the same in every aspect. So that is very comforting.

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