Gulf War Illness Report Shows Cancers Ignored by US Government Scientists
In mid November, a committee set up by the US Congress released a report on Gulf War Illness (GWI), an event widely reported by the media. It was considered a landmark study, as it stated categorically that the ill effects suffered by veterans of the 1990-1991 Gulf War were real, and amounted to a distinct medical condition.
The report identified two probable causes of this illness - pyridostigmine bromide (PB) pills which were given to troops to protect them from nerve agents, and pesticides which were liberally used to protect troops from insects.
However, amidst all the fuss, some damning information on the US government’s response to the use of uranium weapons was completely ignored by the media. The section on DU supported ICBUW’s finding that a touchstone study on US veterans affected by DU shrapnel ignored an incidence of cancer in the group.
Melissa McDiarmid’s Baltimore study, which looks at the long-term health of friendly fire victims, many of whom have DU fragments in their bodies, drew particular criticism. This study is frequently referred to by the UK and US governments when they seek to defend DU, and has been repeatedly attacked by campaigners.
Amongst the problems the report highlights with the study are the small numbers of veterans studied, the lack of a control group, and a failure to follow up significant findings.
The RAC report found that McDiarmid apparently chose to ignore two veterans with tumours in her study group. That one veteran developed Hodgkin’s lymphoma is mentioned in passing in one write-up in 1999, but omitted from subsequent reports, and the occurrence of a non-malignant bone tumour in another is not mentioned at all.
This was first exposed by US veteran and DU researcher Dan Fahey, and was mentioned in his presentation during ICBUW’s workshop at the United Nations in April 2008, but the fact that the committee confirmed it is a huge vindication. The omission is described as ‘puzzling’, and the committee questioned the study director about it, who apparently replied that: “these cases were not included because they were not believed to be the result of DU exposure.”
McDiarmid’s team maintain that none of the veterans in their cohort are suffering from DU exposure, and are in good health. Most of these Department for Veterans Affairs (VA) studies do not have an un-exposed control group, thereby lessening their potential for extrapolating the effects of exposure. There can be little doubt that these studies have retarded research on DU and any serious health effects in humans.
In comparison to the evidence for PB and pesticides being a possible cause of Gulf War illness, the information on other possible causes is much less clear, and DU falls into this category. The report observes that there are huge gaps in our knowledge concerning the impact of the use of uranium munitions, and leaves open the possibility that it may be found to have played a factor in the health problems of some veterans.
Unlike oil well fires and possible nerve agent exposure, the US government has not provided reports into the areas where DU was used, and the units most likely to be affected. Although a map exists, it appears the committee was not shown it. Instead they have to fall back on the estimates by Dan Fahey that several hundred thousand veterans may have been exposed to DU.
Other knowledge gaps highlighted by the committee are that most of the models used to estimate the dangers of DU are based around the scenario of friendly fire incidents, which are not typical of the majority of exposures, and that self-reporting – the main source of information for studies which track exposure to health problems – will be even less reliable for Gulf War veterans as most soldiers knew nothing about DU during deployment.
Institute of Medicine
When considering Gulf War illness overall, the RAC report criticized Gulf War and Health, a series of reports put out by the Institute of Medicine, saying that they “provided little information that is directly relevant to health conditions that affect Gulf War veterans at excess rates or their association with Gulf War exposures.” This was due to the focus on well understood diagnosable conditions rather than the undiagnosed symptoms that make up GWI. Their report on DU was not singled out for particular criticism, but other reports in the series had omitted important research, and overall these reports were said to have delayed research on Gulf War illness.
This led the RAC to declare that the reports did not fulfil their legal requirements, and it recommended that the government office that commissioned them should be stripped of responsibility for future research.
Potential Dangers of DU
In finding that DU was not the main cause of GWI for most veterans, the RAC were not absolving it of any role in veterans’ illnesses. Because of the differences between the main symptoms of GWI and the health problems associated with DU, and the lack of mass symptoms in the veterans of other conflicts, they thought it unlikely that DU is a major factor in GWI.
Despite this the report does raise concerns about the potential dangers from DU exposure. It cites preliminary evidence from animal studies of its damaging effects on the brain as “potentially of great importance”, but states that more research is required before recommendations could be made on the basis of this evidence. It also points out that health concerns about DU are much broader than GWI, and there is scant evidence upon which to judge its links with cancers and birth defects. Indeed, it implies that the VA has not released all the information it has on the health of veterans’ families.
The recommendations that follow are very simple – suitably broad epidemiological studies of veterans to establish links between DU exposure and health outcomes, better attempts to establish exposure rather than self-reporting, and monitoring of cancer and mortality amongst veterans thought to be active in areas where DU has been used. As this is the kind of recommendation which could have been made by a first year medical student when the DU issue came to prominence, it is a genuine indictment of the last 17 years of US government sponsored research since 1991.
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Page last updated: 12 February, 2009