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STUDY LINKS SYNDROME TO CHEMICAL `COCKTAIL'

Mysterious illnesses afflicting gulf war veterans may be caused by a chemical cocktail of anti-nerve gas pills and insecticides given to soldiers during the war, researchers say.

Researchers exposed chickens to the same combination of chemicals that soldiers were given, then compared their blood to samples taken from about a dozen gulf war veterans. In every case, the chickens suffered nervous system damage like that suffered by veterans.No undisputed link has been established between the combination of chemicals and the ailments unofficially known as gulf war syndrome, but that's where the preliminary findings point, said Mohamed Abou-Donia, deputy director of Duke University Medical Center's toxicology program.

"I'm confident we have more than a hypothesis," he said. "We have very solid data to demonstrate we have a plausible scenario of what could have happened in the gulf war."

The $150,000 study, funded by longtime veteran supporter Ross Perot, has not been peer-reviewed or published. And another toxicologist said the Duke team's research will be hard to prove.

"It's a kind of scenario that is fairly easy to construct but difficult to prove," said Ernest Hodgson, head of the toxicology department at North Carolina State University. He isn't involved in the study.

"Chemicals do interact, and there are cases where the toxicity of two chemicals is far greater than when given separately. . . . So it's credible, but that's a long way from proof," Hodgson said.

Of the 697,000 troops who served in the war, about 6 percent - some 43,000 - still complain of muscle pain, memory loss and respiratory and heart problems, according to the Pentagon. Of the 43,000, the symptoms of all but 15 percent can be attributed to known illnesses, but doctors haven't been able to make clear diagnoses in about one of every six cases.

Last June, Department of Agriculture scientist James Moss announced similar results in his study of whether the combination of chemicals commonly used by the military during the war could be the cause of gulf war syndrome.

Moss, experimenting with insects, said he found that a bug repellant is 10 times more deadly on cockroaches when combined with a drug that protects against nerve gas, adding that it wasn't possible to say the same would be true for humans.

Abou-Donia said the next step is understanding how it happens.

One possible reason some veterans got sick and others didn't is that each person's ability to deal with toxic chemicals varies.