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DoD Finds Troops Misused Pesticides During Gulf War

By Sgt. 1st Class Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 18, 2001 – DoD investigators have found that troops occasionally misused pesticides during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Senior defense officials said they can't confirm or rule out a connection between pesticides and illnesses some veterans have been experiencing since the war.

"We're not able to make a link epidemiologically," said Bernard Rostker, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. Rostker also serves as special assistant to the deputy secretary of defense for Gulf War illnesses, medical readiness and military deployments.

DoD released an environmental exposure report Jan. 12 that examined the use and potential long-term health effects of pesticides during the Gulf War. Veterans have reported a wide array of unexplained illnesses that some suspect may be related to their use of and exposure to pesticides during the war.

DoD interviewed 900 Gulf War veterans on their pesticide use during their time in Southwest Asia, and the RAND Corp. surveyed another 2,000 on the same issue.

The RAND survey found that roughly half the troops serving in the area reported using DEET insect repellent nearly every day, RAND senior statistician Ron Fricker said during a Jan. 12 DoD press briefing. Other pesticides were used much less frequently -- only about 6 percent of troops said they used permethrin, the No. 2 pesticide.

Fricker said the most widely misused products were pet flea and tick collars. "We found that about 3 percent, or 13,000 people, actually wore a pet flea or tick collar either over their clothes or over their shoes," he said.

Investigators also found evidence of widespread use of pest strips. During the Gulf War, the Environmental Protection Agency recommended using one pest strip for each 1,000 cubic feet of tent space; the EPA today recommends about half a strip for that space, Rostker said.

"And we have examples not only of one pest strip going up in that volume, but if one's good, two must be better, and three should even be better than that," he said. "So it's quite clear that we overused them."

Other survey findings include: 31 percent used more than one pesticide; 9 percent used three or more; and 39 percent used none at all.

RAND also carefully reviewed literature on health effects associated with pesticide exposure and found no evidence of long-term health effects. Findings of the literature review fell into two general categories. There was no evidence of ill effects in literature on four of the studied pesticides: lindane, DEET, permethrin and d-Phenothrin.

"We felt ... we could pretty much rule them out as something that would cause long-term, chronic effects," said RAND Director Ross Anthony at the briefing.

A second set of results deals with substances known as acetylcholinesterase inhibitors, including organophosphates and carbamates, Anthony said. The researchers found instances linking these substances to symptoms similar to those reported by some Gulf War veterans -- fatigue, muscle and joint pain, headaches, cognitive problems and sleep disorders.

"We note that there is a reported biological role of acetylcholinesterase in the symptoms that provide some plausibility for the illness that we see in Gulf War veterans," Anthony said. He warned, however, that results should be used carefully. Some Gulf War veterans were exposed to other acetylcholinesterase inhibitors, in particular nerve agents and pyridostigmine bromide, which troops received to protect them against nerve agents, he said.

"I would also point out that similarities in symptoms alone are insufficient to draw conclusions and that we should look at these (results) with some caution," he said.

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