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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Gulf War Vets - The Battle at Home

Air Date: Week of

Wade Goodwyn reports from Dallas, Texas on a number of Gulf War veterans suffering from debilitating illnesses. Doctors at the Environmental Health Center say the vets developed a severe allergic reaction to the chemicals and oil smoke they were exposed to in the Gulf War. For some vets, the symptoms, also known as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, have carried over to civilian life. The Veterans' Administration refuses to acknowledge the cause of the illnesses or the Health Center's unconventional treatments.


CURWOOD: In Dallas, Texas, an alternative clinic called the Environmental Health Center is in the middle of a growing national public health controversy. At issue are the claims of some of America's Gulf War veterans, who believe they were poisoned by exposure to chemicals overseas. The Veterans Administration says it won't pay for the vets' treatment because there is no definitive proof that their illness is service-related. That's prompted many stricken veterans to seek treatment elsewhere. A dozen have ended up at the Dallas clinic, which is a leading facility in the emerging - but still unproven - field of environmental medicine. Some credit the clinic with saving their lives. Wade Goodwin has our story.

GOODWIN: For environmental illness patients, the Environmental Health Center is a mecca of sorts. The clinic, founded by Dr. William Rea in 1974, is jammed with patients. Some wait in the hallway with filter masks over their faces. Like "Mike" from TV's Northern Exposure, who lives in an environmentally-friendly geodesic dome, these patients believe that their immune system has been terribly damaged through exposure to chemicals. Many traditional medical doctors consider this a controversial notion. But for a dozen of the more seriously ill veterans of the Gulf War, the Environmental Health Center is the only place they have found where the doctors seem to have any idea what's wrong with them.

ZESPIN: I was down to less than a hundred and twenty-nine pounds, and I'm six-foot-three.

GOODWIN: Gulf War veteran Gary Zespin served aboard the USS New Orleans and during the war his ship was enveloped in oil well smoke and attacked by a scud missile. He's now so ill that he can no longer leave his room. After getting what he believed was inadequate and off-hand treatment by VA doctors, Zespin sought help at the Environmental Health Center.

ZESPIN: My stomach is so destro - is messed up to the point where I can only tolerate about 15 different types of food. My lungs are destroyed to the point where it's hard for me to breathe. I'm on oxygen all the time. It's hard for me to describe what it is to be me. I feel like I've lost all dignity.

GOODWIN: Zespin's symptoms mirror those of the other patients at the clinic who've been diagnosed as suffering from what is called "multiple chemical sensitivity." He gets sick from chemicals released into the air from carpeting, television sets, perfume, and deodorants, even drywall - almost everything that has any synthetics in it. It's taken an enormous toll on his family, especially his wife, Betty.

BETTY ZESPIN: It's been a total nightmare. We have a hospital home, we don't have a normal home anymore. We can't go to the movies, we can't eat regular food anymore. You have to be on your guard all the time because anything could make him an allergic, life-threatening reaction.

GOODWIN: On the advice of Dr. Rea, Gary Zespin has begun treatment which includes isolating himself in a special room he's building onto his house, which is made of glass, steel, and tile. He has also started a special diet designed to build up his immune system. Whether these treatments actually help still seems to be anybody's guess. Zespin thinks they have. Dr. Rea believes that brain imaging technology shows that chemical poisoning has affected the blood flow to the vets' brains.

REA: If you do a brain scan on them you'll see the toxic patterns in their brain, and they've really soaked up a lot of fuel oil, apparently from the fires and there's about a list now of 20 different things that we've found, for example, a lot of them worked in the motor pool and they were getting fumes from all the trucks and tanks and everything, and their showers were, the water was carried in tanker trucks, oil tanker trucks, and it would bead off their skin when they took their showers.

GOODWIN: According to VA statistics, out of 250,000 veterans who returned from the war, 88,000 have been seen at VA hospitals. And at least 725 have died since their return. Staff Sergeant Gerry Phillips is another Gulf War veteran who's being treated at the Dallas clinic. He's a National Guard mechanic who thinks that he was poisoned by the repeated spraying of Saudi pesticides while he served in the rear.

PHILLIPS: The Saudis had come around and fogged the area, and in about 15-20 minutes I started getting these symptoms of numbness around the mouth, shortness of breath, chest pains, nausea, confusion. So they started treating me for a heart attack.

GOODWIN: It was not a heart attack. And after finding nothing else wrong, doctors at the 85th Evacuation Hospital sent him back to active duty. But the next time that the Saudis sprayed, Phillips again got sick and stayed sick, and he was shipped home. He tried to return to work at his post in Oklahoma, but can no longer be around the chemicals that are part and parcel of his trade as a mechanic. Interestingly, Phillips served three years in Vietnam, and was repeated doused with a chemical defoliant known as Agent Orange. But until now he suffered only minor health problems. A lifelong soldier, Phillips says that the VA hospitals and doctors haven't changed much since he was treated for Agent Orange 20 years ago.

PHILLIPS: Their attitude is that you're looking for a handout. I just want to be fixed so I can go back to work.

GOODWIN: Like Zespin, Phillips has been treated by Rea with special diets and isolation. Many mainstream doctors consider the diagnosis of environmental illness to be controversial at best. Some consider it quackery. Clinical trials have failed to prove that the affliction called "multiple chemical sensitivity" even exists. And it is that medical ground upon which the VA stands for refusing to pay for the vets' treatments. Dr. Susan Mather is the VA's assistant chief medical director of environmental medicine and public health.

MATHER: There is no universal acceptance in the scientific or medical community that such a disease exists. It's a problem area. Removal from the chemicals appears to help. But there's no evidence that the other kinds of things that are put forth - the rotational diets and those sorts of things - do in fact do any good.

GOODWIN: Unfortunately for the veterans, VA doctors haven't been able to come up with anything better. And the entire situation has been complicated by a recent admissions by the Pentagon that remnants of chemical weapons were found on Gulf War battlefields. Whether that plays a role in the vets' illness is still under investigation. Though the medical controversy about what's making the vets sick is intensifying, what is not in debate is that some of them have come very ill. For Gary Zespin, the fact that doctors at the Environmental Health Center believe that they know what is making him sick is, in and of itself, a breath of fresh air.

ZESPIN: The clinic in Dallas is wonderful. They have been seeing veterans without asking for anything. They're just wonderful. They've saved my life, I know.

GOODWIN: Several senators and congressmen have angrily accused the Pentagon of being evasive about the possibility that the vets have been chemically poisoned. Congressional investigations into the cause of the vets illness are continuing. For Living on Earth, I'm Wade Goodwin in Austin.



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