Marine says chemical agents were detected on battlefield



were detected on battlefield

WASHINGTON (AP)—Low levels of chemical agents were detected several times on battlefields during the Persian Gulf War, a Marine chemicals expert said Tuesday during testimony on mysterious ailments afflicting war veterans.

Joseph P. Cottrell, a chief warrant officer who served with a nuclear, biological and chemical defense team during the war, said his detection vehicle twice picked up traces of Lewisite blister vapors.

The Jackson, Mich., Marine told the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee that he passed on the information to his superiors but that the computer tape has since been lost.

The Pentagon, after long denying any evidence the Iraqis used chemical or biological agents during the 1991 war, last week acknowledged the work of Czech teams that found traces of nerve gas and a blister agent in the gulf region. But Defense Secretary Les Aspin said the chemicals didn’t cause the illnesses afflicting thousands of Persian Gulf veterans.

Cottrell said the tape may have been misdirected and ‘‘I fervently believe that no one person purposely suppressed, destroyed or lost any of the chemical reports.’‘

Interest in Persian Gulf syndrome has grown recently with revelations that chemical agents—along with fumes from oil well fires, pesticides and radiation from depleted uranium used in munitions—might be behind the illnesses.

Doctors, sick veterans and Pentagon and Veterans Affairs Department officials testified in House and Senate hearings Tuesday. The VA recently announced plans for a pilot program to test veterans who believe they have been contaminated by chemicals, and Aspin said last week he is appointing a panel of experts to study the illnesses.

Lawmakers blamed the Pentagon for not doing enough. ‘‘There are some hard truths here that the Pentagon is reluctant to face,’‘ Sen. Don Riegle, D-Mich., a Senate leader on the syndrome issue, said.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, D-Colo., spoke of a family friend who returned from the Persian Gulf in failing health and was refused medical care. ‘‘How sick does a youngster have to be before they have to look at him? Does he have to die first?’‘

VA Secretary Jesse Brown insisted that ‘‘we have learned from VA’s experience from Agent Orange,’‘ where for decades the government denied that the herbicide was ruining the health of Vietnam War veterans.

He said more than 10,000 Persian Gulf veterans have been examined under a VA program and ‘‘we have looked at all possibilities and have asked for recommendations from all possible sources.’‘

But he said that of 1,472 decisions on claims for disability due to environmental hazards, only 79 have received service-connected benefits.

The difficulty, he said, is that the VA has no mechanism to establish a service connection for multiple chemical sensitivity and Persian Gulf syndrome ‘‘because they are not widely acknowledged in the medical community as disabilities.’‘

Dr. Myra Shayevitz of the VA Medical Center in Northampton, Mass., cited National Research Council estimates that up to 15 percent of the U.S. population may be suffering from multiple chemical sensitivity, which causes a wide array of physical and psychological problems.

The medical community is divided, however, on whether multiple chemical sensitivity even exists.