One of the most troubling questions surrounding the health of soldiers who served in the Persian Gulf War has been whether they are at high risk of having children with birth defects. A major study published in today's New England Journal of Medicine may go a long way toward easing those worries: It finds that the overall rate of birth defects in the children of more than 500,000 Gulf War veterans appears to be completely normal.
Fears of a wave of birth defects among the babies of Gulf War veterans soared after the war ended in 1991, fed by articles in popular magazines replete with anecdotes about Gulf vet children born with deformed limbs and other problems. Like the aches, rashes, and various other ailments reported by some veterans themselves, there was speculation that these defects might have been caused by the soldiers' possible exposure to chemical hazards in the Gulf, such as smoke from oil fires, nerve agents, pesticides, and anti-nerve gas drugs.
Now comes the first large population study to look at the risk of birth defects in veterans' babies. Epidemiologists from the Department of Defense and the University of California, San Diego, led by David Cowan, a DOD epidemiology consultant based in Falls Church, Virginia, examined military hospital records for nearly 580,000 active service male and female Gulf War veterans and the 33,998 babies conceived and born to them after they came home and up to October 1993.
Compared to 700,000 active service members who didn't serve in the Gulf, the rate of birth defects was about the same--7.45% (1.85% for severe defects) for Gulf vets, compared to 7.59% (1.86% for severe defects) for the control group. The rate at which Gulf vets had children was also comparable. And there was no association between the rate of birth defects and the length of veterans' stints in the Gulf, a rough measure of exposure.
"It's completely good news," says Cowan. Phil Budahn, a spokesperson for the American Legion, agrees: "There has been tremendous anxiety among Gulf War vets" about birth defects, he says, calling the study a "valuable first step toward allaying some of those fears." Cowan notes, however, that the study has limitations. For example, it didn't examine spontaneous abortions, and it wouldn't have picked up very rare defects resulting from exposures in the Gulf. "It's not definitive or the last word," agrees University of North Carolina epidemiologist David Savitz.