Medical Mysteries


Gulf War Syndrome

Gulf War syndrome (GWS) arose from conditions experienced by thousands of military veterans and civilian workers involved in the First Gulf War (1990–1991). The chronic disorder presents with a range of symptoms including fatigue, muscle and joint pain, memory problems, and neurological effects. Dermatologic, gastrointestinal, and respiratory conditions are also associated with GWS. The U.S. Congress commissioned several medical reports to determine causes of GWS. The Forensic Science Center (FSC) supported efforts to analyze “souvenirs” returned with veterans, such as gas masks and flight suits, for evidence of weapons of mass destruction. The FSC’s results were formally read into the Congressional Record, as well as included in the 1994 Riegle Report, requested by Michigan Senator Donald Riegle, chair of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.

Toxic Fumes

In 1994, emergency room staff at Riverside General Hospital in California treated a woman suffering from a rapid heart rate and erratic respiration. Her skin appeared covered in an oily sheen and emanated a garlic-like odor. A blood sample taken from the patient’s arm contained unusual particles. Nurses and doctors attending to the woman began experiencing lightheadedness, several fainted, and symptoms continued as replacement staff were brought in. The ER was evacuated, and the hospital was placed on emergency diversion to other facilities. In all, nearly 30 health care professionals became ill during the episode, and the patient died. During the subsequent investigation, the Riverside Coroner’s Office asked the FSC for help in explaining the mystery. Livermore scientists developed a scenario involving dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) within the specific conditions of her care. DMSO is a degreasing agent sometimes used as a home remedy for pain. This case is now being cited in elementary forensic science textbooks. Read more about the case.

  1. P.M. Grant et al. “A Possible Chemical Explanation for the Events Associated with the Death of Gloria Ramirez at Riverside General Hospital.” Forensic Science International 87: 219-237 (1997).
  2. P.M. Grant. “Response to Letters to the Editor Concerning the Riverside ‘Mystery Fumes’ Incident Analysis.” Forensic Science International 94: 223-230 (1998).