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Gulf War Syndrome mystery SOLVED: US scientists blame the condition on SARIN gas released into the air when Iraq's chemical weapons cache was bombed
- Quarter of veterans who served in Gulf War suffering unexplained symptoms
- Scientists left flummoxed by the cause fatigue, memory problems and body pain
- But now US study has found the usually fatal nerve gas sarin is to blame
PUBLISHED: 12:23 EDT, 11 May 2022
The bombing of Saddam Hussein's chemical weapon arsenal could be to blame for tens of thousands of British and US soldiers being struck down with the mysterious Gulf War syndrome, scientists say.
Puzzled researchers have spent decades searching for the root cause of the illness, which has left veterans battling fatigue, memory problems and chronic pain.
Now, a US Government-funded study claims to offer the 'most definitive' proof that the destruction of Iraq's cache of chemical weapons is responsible.
January 1991's explosions, centered around cities Muthanna and Fallujah, 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.
He said: 'There are still more than 100,000 Gulf War veterans who are not getting help for this illness.
'Our hope is that these findings will accelerate the search for better treatment.'
Sarin gas released when troops destroyed caches of Iraqi chemical weapons during the Gulf War is the likely cause of the so-called 'Gulf War Syndrome' affecting a quarter of a million veterans
The map of shows the locations of major chemical weapons storage facilities bombed on the night of January 18 and 19 1991 and the location of US military units and sites of sarin and other chemical weapon detections on January 19 to 21
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.
Hundreds of thousands of US troops, along with soldiers from a coalition of 35 countries entered were sent to Kuwait in August 1990 after the country annexed by Iraq.
Western nations feared Iraqi president Saddam Hussein would march his troops further south and take control of Saudi Arabia and its oil supplies.
The allied nations began air strikes in January 1991 after Iraq missed a United Nations deadline to withdraw from Kuwait.
But Iraqi troops eventually withdrew from one month later following air attacks on military and other targets in Iraq and Kuwait.
Soldiers reported suffering from the array of symptoms on returning from the conflict and cases had been logged in the UK, Denmark, Canada and Australia in the years after the war.
Original theories over the cause of the illness centred around debris from depleted uranium munitions, but evidence has since built up to suggest sarin is to blame.
Dr Haley and colleagues examined 1,016 American soldiers who served during the conflict.
Half the participants had Gulf War syndrome symptoms — which can also include difficulty finding words, diarrhoea and sexual dysfunction. The others did not.
They had blood and DNA samples taken and were quizzed about whether they had heard chemical nerve gas alarms during their deployment.
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.
The findings, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, show 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.
Dr Haley said: 'Your risk is going up step by step depending on your genotype, because those genes are mediating how well your body inactivates sarin.
A US Government-funded study has found the usually fatal sarin gas is to blame for Gulf War syndrome, which triggers symptoms including fatigue and chronic body pain.