MONDAY, Feb. 1, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- Exposure to pesticides and other toxins appears to be the cause of Gulf War illness in U.S. veterans, a new analysis states.
The Boston University researchers reviewed studies on Gulf War illness, and said their findings "clearly and consistently" show a link between the disorder and exposure to pesticides and taking pyridostigmine bromide (PB) pills, which were meant to protect troops against the effects of nerve gas.
There's also evidence of a connection between Gulf War illness and exposure to the nerve gas agents sarin and cyclosarin, and to oil well fire emissions, according to the findings published in the January issue of the journal Cortex.
These toxins damaged troops' nervous and immune systems, and reduced the amount of white and gray matter in veterans' brains, said study leader Roberta White in a news release from the university. White is a professor of environmental health at Boston University's School of Public Health.
The main causes of Gulf War illness are like so-called "friendly fire," said study co-author James Binns. "We did it to ourselves," he said in the news release.
"Pesticides, PB, nerve gas released by destroying Iraqi facilities -- all are cases of friendly fire. That may explain why government and military leaders have been so reluctant to acknowledge what happened," Binns said.
About 700,000 U.S. troops fought in the first Gulf War 25 years ago, and as many as 250,000 veterans of that conflict have Gulf War illness, the researchers said. It is a debilitating disorder that features symptoms such as fatigue, joint and muscle pain, headaches, concentration and memory difficulties, gastrointestinal problems and skin rashes.
For years, Gulf War veterans have claimed that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs did not take Gulf War illness seriously. In 2008, a committee created by Congress and directed by the White House released a report that said Gulf War illness is a real disorder that's distinct from stress-related syndromes.
The report from the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses called for research into the causes and treatments of the illness. Binns was chairman of that committee.
Efforts to find effective treatments for Gulf War illness have been unsuccessful, but recent research has started to offer promising leads, the researchers added.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on Gulf War illness.