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Release No: 018-01
January 12, 2001


The Department of Defense released today an environmental exposure report examining the use, and potential long-term health effects, of pesticides during the Gulf War. Some Gulf War veterans have reported a wide array of unexplained illnesses that many suspect may be related to their use of and exposure to pesticides during the war. As a result of the health risk assessment conducted at the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses, analysts conclude they could neither prove nor rule out any connection between pesticide exposure and chronic health effects.

In general, the pesticides and repellents used by U.S. personnel in the Kuwait Theater of Operations were approved by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration. They belonged to five major categories: organophosphorus pesticides, such as malathion and chlorpyrifos; carbamate pesticides, such as bendiocarb; the organochlorine, lindane; pyrethroid pesticides, such as permethrin; and the insect repellent DEET. During the Gulf War, all these pesticides were approved by EPA and the FDA for general use, and were not considered harmful when used according to instructions. Some pesticides were purchased locally by authorized personnel for unit use or by individuals for their personal use. Some of these locally purchased products may not have been registered with the EPA.

The interim report notes that several select groups of military personnel, because of their job responsibilities, were potentially at greater health risk from pesticide exposure. These include trained and certified pesticide applicators, field sanitation teams and military police who conducted delousing operations. Only one documented case of pesticide exposure resulting in an adverse health effect was found during the course of the investigation. There were, however, anecdotal reports by several Gulf War veterans that they sought medical treatment due to exposure to pesticides while in the Gulf.

The report stresses the results of the health risk assessment alone do not prove that overexposures occurred during deployment or that any connection exists between pesticide exposures and chronic health effects months or years after exposure. But the assessment does conclude that some groups may have been exposed to concentrations of pesticides which exceeded conservatively derived, risk-based levels of concern, and that because of the overall lack of data, there is not enough evidence to rule out possible long-term effects resulting from exposures to pesticides during the Gulf War deployment.

Analysts say an important question regarding organophosphate and carbamate pesticides is: If individuals had no signs or symptoms at the time of exposure, how likely is it that such exposures could result in adverse health effects months or years later?

There is no simple answer that can be given with a high level of confidence, as there is conflicting information in the literature on this subject. The relevant information comes mainly from published studies of civilian pesticide handlers in the United States and foreign countries.

Some reports in the literature suggest that unless individuals had signs and symptoms of serious pesticide poisoning or toxicity at the time of the initial exposure, health effects months or years later are unlikely. However, according to the RAND literature review for pesticides, there is also evidence of modest long-term effects following repeated asymptomatic exposures. This issue can be resolved only by further research.

Furthermore, analysts say, it's unlikely that exposure to these pesticides is the sole explanation for myriad health problems reported by Gulf War veterans, since few veterans' symptoms are uniquely characteristic of pesticide exposure alone.

To help evaluate the possible health effects of pesticides exposure on Gulf War veterans, the Special Assistant's Office commissioned the RAND Corp. to review the existing scientific literature on the health effects of pesticides. The scientific literature search completed by RAND suggests that pesticides, specifically acetylcholinesterase inhibitors such as organophosphates and carbamates, could be among the potential contributing agents to some of the undiagnosed illnesses reported by Gulf War veterans. Therefore, exposure to these pesticides cannot be ruled out as a potential contributing factor to some of these undiagnosed illnesses.

The complete environmental exposure report is available on GulfLINK, DoD's Internet website, at http://www.gulflink.osd.mil/retired/pest/ .

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