Health

VA to study health effects of Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan on vets' families

Over the next two years, researchers will evaluate whether there is evidence linking recent veterans' military service with poor health outcomes in their descendants. Here, a U.S. Army Soldier fires an M4 carbine rifle during training at Tactical Base Gamberi, Afghanistan in May 2015.
Over the next two years, researchers will evaluate whether there is evidence linking recent veterans' military service with poor health outcomes in their descendants. Here, a U.S. Army Soldier fires an M4 carbine rifle during training at Tactical Base Gamberi, Afghanistan in May 2015.
Photograph by Capt. Charlie Emmons via U.S. Army/Flickr Creative Commons

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The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has commissioned its first major study of whether men and women who served in America's most recent wars passed on any health problems to their children or grandchildren.

Researchers with the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine will hunt for any research that suggests soldiers who fought in the first Gulf War, the post-9/11 Iraq war and Afghanistan might have passed on any medical conditions to their descendants.

"We are evaluating whether there is any evidence out there. And if there isn’t, then let’s design recommendations that can help acquire that kind of data in the most effective and meaningful way," says Dr. Kenneth Ramos, chair of the committee overseeing the study.

The VA is required by law to explore potential connections between military service and negative health outcomes. Previous government studies have looked into whether veterans of the Gulf War and those on active duty since 9/11 suffered health problems after their service; the new study will be the first step in an effort to evaluate their children and grandchildren.

"The government takes these reports to heart and utilizes them to guide and inform decisions," Ramos says. "It influences their ability to make decisions regarding a path forward."

With veterans of the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan concluding their service so recently, many haven’t had time to have grandchildren. That’s partly why the committee is launching the study now, he says.

"Because not enough data is available, how do we ensure that we can position ourselves to be acquiring the kind of findings and data that we need to be able to generate the information that’s required?" says Ramos.

The committee won’t limit itself to examining any particular health outcomes, says Ramos. But it will pay special attention to conditions linked with exposure to solvents, pesticides and certain metals.

"The reality is that these are things that to a lesser or greater degree everyone is exposed to," he says. "But because of the nature of the conflict itself and the activities of military personnel, then they become agents of interest. Disposal of residues, burning of trash—those are things that might actually influence extensive exposure." 

The results of the two-year study are expected in 2019.

During the 1990-91 Gulf War, U.S. troops were exposed to chemical and biological weapons and particulates from burning oil wells. Veterans have continued to complain of health problems more than 25 years later. Commonly-reported symptoms include chronic fatigue, headaches, joint pain and memory problems.

Some Gulf War soldiers also used tank armor and some bullets containing depleted uranium. According to the VA, if a a large amount of depleted uranium enters a person's body through ingestion or a wound, it may affect the kidneys.

In a 2016 study, the National Academies found evidence of a causal relationship and/or association between Gulf War service and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Gulf War illness (generalized anxiety, depression, fatigue, gastrointestinal issues). They found “limited/suggestive evidence of an association” for Lou Gehrig's Disease (ALS) and fibromyalgia. 

Ramos chaired the 2014 biannual committee on Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War. In that study, researchers found no evidence of medical disorders in exposed veterans’ children. 

As part of the new study, researchers will collect veterans’ feedback at a public meeting in September.