Scientists have not been able to agree there is any such thing as "Gulf War Syndrome," the name given a collection of brain disorders, nervous system breakdowns, joint and muscle pain, skin rashes, diarrhoea, fatigue, mood changes, concentration problems and other maladies reported by thousands of veterans of the Gulf War in the Middle East which ended in 1991. Some veterans have suggested they are sick from breathing in smoke and contaminants when Iraqis set oil well fires. Some say it might have been tablets they took to protect themselves from nerve gas, or depleted uranium used in new armour-piercing US weaponry, or nerve gas released when they exploded and destroyed Iraqi chemical weapons stockpiles, or exotic infections, drugs and vaccines.
There is one report of a group of people exposed to nerve gas who developed symptoms quite similar to those of Gulf War Syndrome. These were 129 Germans who worked in munitions factories and made many kinds of chemical weapons, including sarin and tabun, after the start of World War II. In 1963, a scientist named U Spiegelberg reported on his examination of them. The great majority, he wrote, "showed persistently lowered vitality", "headache, gastrointestinal and cardiovascular symptoms" and other problems, including an "impression of premature aging". Because the workers had all held their jobs at least two years, their poison exposure almost certainly was far greater than any that might have occurred in the Gulf. Despite those differences, this is the best evidence that the constellation of symptoms some veterans report could conceivably arise from nerve gas.
The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has set the permissible internal dose of U-238 at 0.19 milligrams per day for the general public. For employees at nuclear-related facilities, the limit is 2 milligrams.
It was reported in 2001 that of more than 540,000 Americans deployed at the peak of the fighting in the Persian Gulf, some 117,000 have signed up for special examinations. Some 21,000 have symptoms that have not been explained. In Britain, advocates say 6,000 of the 31,000 who served are similarly ill. In France, the government agreed in September 2000 to study the problem. It is unclear how many French veterans are sick, but officials say 300 of the 25,000 who went to the Gulf have asked for pensions related to the illnesses.
After spending $300 million on scores of studies, the US Department of Defense said in 2001 that it has found no scientific evidence that conclusively points to any cause.
Similar symptoms are being reported by veterans of the war in Bosnia.
The Pentagon has been accused of severe bias and/or neglect for its failure to ensure the safety of American soldiers facing chemical combat during the Gulf War, and its disinterest in their health problems afterward. Alarm systems that can detect chemical agents were set so as to detect only lethal levels of noxious chemicals, leaving open the possibility that soldiers were unknowingly exposed to harmful low levels. The main detectors were not able to detect mustard gas. The Fox vehicles could detect only the most prevalent chemical agent, and in fact on the war front were rarely able to deliver the 20 minute analysis requisite to detecting any agent. The Pentagon has nonetheless insisted that soldiers' illnesses are not due to exposure to chemicals. Evidence is available from the Pentagon's own consultants that soldiers were probably exposed to poison gas.
The theory that many Gulf War veterans are ill because they were unwittingly exposed to nerve gas contradicts most of what is known about the health effects of chemical weapons. Such a scenario is unlikely because nerve gases almost always cause immediate symptoms and almost never cause permanent damage to those who survive. There is even less evidence that they cause illnesses that first appear months after contact. If soldiers encountered nerve agents during the Gulf War, it is probable that a few people would have received doses high enough to kill, or at least make them seriously ill. But that does not seem to have happened.