Scientists warn over sarin exposure in Iraq
13:36 20 May 04
NewScientist.com news service
Scientists have warned that even low level exposure to sarin nerve gas in Iraq puts people at risk of a debilitating form of Gulf War Syndrome. They say a simple blood test can assess the risk, and veterans' groups claim the US Army is ignoring the danger.
Proof that some of Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons still exist finally came on Monday, when a chemical shell containing sarin was discovered in Baghdad. It had been rigged to booby-trap a US military convoy and exploded before it could be disarmed, resulting in "minor exposure" for two bomb disposal experts.
The two "showed some minor indications of nerve poisoning" said Army general Mark Kimmitt on Monday. "However, it was so minor that the doctors already have these people released." The two were probably treated with atropine, the standard antidote for life-threatening exposure to sarin.
But scientists have previously found a link between very low doses of sarin and a nasty form of Gulf War Syndrome, for which atropine is not effective. They say that the two soldiers, and nearby personnel who may have received even smaller doses, should be given a simple blood test to reveal whether they are at risk.
Kimmitt said the device was an old 155-millimetre "binary" shell designed to be fired from artillery. When it is fired, two precursor chemicals mix within the shell, forming sarin. UN inspectors estimated that Saddam's regime produced about 800 tonnes of sarin during the 1980s and said they did not find and destroy it all.
Some troops exposed to low doses of Saddam's sarin when ammunition dumps were bombed during the 1991 Gulf War developed a syndrome including nausea, dizziness, and sometimes violent emotional changes, which involved damage to a brain region called the basal ganglia. The victims also had low natural levels of a blood enzyme, paraoxonase, which destroys sarin and related organophosphate pesticides.
Robert Haley, of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, says 80 per cent of people have enough paraoxonase in their blood to protect them from low doses of sarin. "I hope those two did," he told New Scientist. "If not they will probably develop problems."
If they do, some say the US authorities who help veterans with long-term service injuries may not believe the illness is linked to the sarin exposure. Steve Robinson, of the National Gulf War Resource Center in Washington DC, which campaigns on veterans' health issues, says: "The army acts like, if they didn't die at the scene, there's no problem. We wiped them off, and they're good to go."
The soldiers' levels of paraoxonase should at least have been tested, he says, and, as it is, their exposure may not even be recorded on their medical records.
New Scientist contacted the departments of Defense and of Veterans Affairs in Washington DC and Central Command in Baghdad, but was given no indication that personnel have or will be tested for paraoxonase. Robinson says: "They can contact us, and we can point them in the right direction to get help."
There may be little medical help to offer, however. Scientists at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense, and at Israel's Weizman Institute, are trying to develop derivatives of paraoxonase that will persist in the blood. These would be taken in anticipation of a chemical attack.
Haley has protected rats from a sarin-related chemical by putting the gene for paraoxonase in a virus and giving the virus to rats, which then produced the enzyme.
In theory, such treatments could protect people with low paraoxonase levels from the long-term effects of low doses of sarin, even if given after exposure, says Haley.
These long-term effects are caused by the agent's effect on brain receptors, not the receptors in muscle and the lungs that make higher doses of sarin lethal. But nothing is yet available for soldiers or anyone else in Iraq who has been exposed to Saddam's leftover sarin - or is in the future.
May 21, '04
Thank you for posting this Gwenith, just today I've learned of this booby-trap chemical weapon shell and I'm also concerned about the two disposal experts who were exposed to sarin nerve gas.
May 21, '04
No WMD's huh hans Blix and John Kerry?....tell that to the two EOD guys that just got exposed to Sarin Gas.
May 21, '04
Blix said "it could be a stray". They only found empty capsules during their search. How did this capsule get sarin nerve gas in it? I agree with Deb, it's so frightening.
May 21, '04
Sarin is a deadly gas but it is not classified as a "WMD" as such and you do not have to be a goverment to produce it. 1995 there was a Sarin attack in th subways of Tokyo.
The cult responsible made their own Sarin.
May 21, '04
Very scary indeed. Agree with gwenith here.
May 22, '04
Also I believe that Saddam used Sarin nerve gas on his own people. I've read that Hitler and the Nazi's first created the nerve gas.