Solved – Gulf War syndrome mystery: SARIN released into air when Iraq’s chemical weapons cache was bombed

Solved – Gulf War syndrome mystery: SARIN released into air when Iraq’s chemical weapons cache was bombed. By Emily Craig.

January 1991’s explosions, centered around cities Muthanna and Fallujah [near Baghdad], released sarin — a lethal nerve-agent — into the air.

The man-made gas — used in the Tokyo subway terror attack — usually kills but the doses inhaled by Western armed forces was diluted. Dr Robert Haley, who has been investigating the syndrome for nearly three decades, said the quantities were still enough to make people ill, however. …

Around 33,000 soldiers in the UK and 250,000 in the US, have complained of a collection of unexplained and chronic symptoms, which also include fever, night sweats and memory and concentration problems. …

The smoking gun:

Soldiers’ samples were tested for a gene called PON1, which break down chemicals in the body.

  • One variant — called PON1Q — generates an enzyme that breaks down sarin.
  • Another variant — called PON1R — helps the body break down other chemicals but is not efficient at destroying sarin.

Everyone carries two copies of PON1, giving them either a QQ, RR or QR genotype. …

  • Gulf War veterans with the QQ genotype who heard nerve agent alarms — a proxy for chemical exposure –were 3.75-times more likely to have the syndrome than those who had not heard the alarm.
  • For those who had a QR genotype, hearing the alarms raised their chance of having Gulf War syndrome by 4.43 times.
  • And for those with two copies of the R gene — which is inefficient at breaking down sarin — the chance of the condition increased by 8.91 times.

The researchers said the gene data provides a ‘high degree’ of confidence that sarin causes the condition. …

‘It doesn’t mean you can’t get Gulf War illness if you have the QQ genotype, because even the highest-level genetic protection can be overwhelmed by higher intensity exposure.’ …

Sarin, which can be a colourless liquid or gas, was first developed as a pesticide by Nazi Germany. It was banned from production in 1997 …

How it happened:

Satellite images show an Iraqi chemical weapons storage site was bombed by the US and some of the 35 coalition nations who participated in the conflict. A large debris cloud, which was confirmed to contain sarin, was pictured rising from the site and spreading over ground troops, where it set off thousands of nerve gas alarms. …

Since the war, researchers have studied a list of possible causes of the illness, ranging from stress, vaccination and burning oil wells to exposure to pesticides, nerve gas, anti-nerve gas medication and depleted uranium. Some of the studies identified links with the illness but none of these causes were widely accepted.

Dr Haley said: ‘As far back as 1995, when we first defined Gulf War illness, the evidence was pointing toward nerve agent exposure, but it has taken many years to build an irrefutable case.’

Great bit of detective work! Shame it took three decades — not bad for government bureaucratic science. Perhaps now it will help in treating the veterans who are still alive.

But look at that gas cloud in the second picture. It covers a lot of Iraq — it’s 200 km from the bombed factories near Baghdad to the coalition troops in northern Saudi. There must be an awful lot of Iraqis with Gulf War syndrome too.