GAINESVILLE - Jim Moss was looking for a better way to kill cockroaches. He found something nobody expected: a possible clue to the mysterious ailments afflicting veterans of the Persian Gulf war.
It was a discovery that would lead some to treat him as an American hero - and others to terminate his work as a federal research scientist.
What Moss found in the bodies of dying insects was a toxic relationship between two chemicals used by an estimated 250,000 American soldiers in the gulf war.
One was a potent, experimental pill - pyridostigmine bromide, or PB - that was supposed to protect soldiers against nerve gas attacks. The other was DEET, a common repellent that soldiers slathered on themselves to ward off desert insects.
At the Medical and Veterinary Entomology Research Laboratory in Gainesville, Moss showed that PB and DEET - at least for cockroaches - are synergistic. Apply them together and the effects multiply, turning a harmless dose of each into a potentially lethal combination.
He did so in defiance of his employer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which invented DEET in the 1950s and tested it at the lab where he worked.
In 1993, when Moss first suspected DEET might be a factor in gulf war ailments, a top USDA official called Gainesville to stop him from spreading his suspicions outside the lab, records show. The lab director told Moss to cease his "unauthorized" DEET research and warned that his career was at stake.
Clearly, the implications of Moss' research were disturbing: He thought the U.S. government might have unwittingly harmed its own troops.
By pursuing those suspicions, he demonstrated that DEET can intensify the effects of a nerve gas pill many gulf war soldiers swallowed daily without knowing its contents. He won an invitation from Sen. Jay Rockefeller to testify at a congressional hearing. He won praise from gulf war veterans and from a researcher who substantiated his findings.
But he lost his job.
In June 1994, the month after Moss appeared before Congress, his temporary appointment as a research scientist in Gainesville ended. The Agriculture Department canceled his job and his research.
Sen. Rockefeller calls that decision a shame.
Moss is a researcher "who had a tremendous amount to contribute" and a patriot who has been "junked" by his government, Rockefeller said Friday.
"He discovered through his own scientific curiosity that an insect repellent, DEET, used by perhaps 70-million Americans may in fact be implicated in a serious public problem," Rockefeller said.
Today, Moss is an unemployed scientist - and still seeking federal support to pursue his gulf war research. He has three children, a wife who works as a librarian, a house on a woodsy lane in Gainesville and a bunch of rejection letters.
"We're broke," he said.
He started with roaches
Six years after the war, gulf war illnesses remain a mystery.
Tens of thousands of soldiers have reported symptoms ranging from chronic fatigue to joint and muscle aches, memory loss and rashes. Many researchers now believe these ailments are war- related, but they differ about the causes.
This week, a presidential advisory committee suggested stress played a major part in soldiers' physical and mental symptoms. At the same time, medical school studies from the University of Iowa and University of Texas pointed to multiple chemical exposures as a more likely explanation.
Soldiers were exposed to smoke from giant oil fires Iraq ignited during the war. They were exposed to pesticides and paint fumes. They may have been exposed to chemical weapons during the war, or afterward, when the U.S. Army blew up a weapons depot that held nerve gas rockets.
Dr. Robert Haley, the author of the Texas study, attributed gulf war illnesses to "subtle brain, spinal cord and nerve damage - but not stress."
Among the chemicals his study cited as possible culprits were two that Jim Moss tested in a Florida lab three years ago: DEET and PB.
In cockroaches and in humans, there are enzymes that regulate transmissions between nerve cells. Nerve gases interfere with these enzymes, causing a massive overloading of the transmission system. So do many pesticides. And so, to a milder degree, does the PB pill given as a shield against nerve gas.
Moss thinks some agent probably intensified some soldiers' reactions to PB. He knows of two that can affect lab animals this way: stress and DEET.
Though he discovered the latter, today "I'd be much more concerned about stress and PB than DEET and PB," he said.
Moss joined this debate largely by chance. He came to Gainesville in 1990 to conduct research on insect pests, an appointment renewed in 1992.
In 1993 he was working with boric acid, a cheap and safe but rather slow treatment for cockroaches, and looking for synergists - chemicals to heighten its effect.
That November he started testing DEET with pesticides, applying droplets of each onto cockroaches immobilized in petri dishes. One was a defoliant known to raise the toxicity of some insecticides. When Moss added the same defoliant to DEET, a repellent, he got what his lab technician described as "rapid kill."
Moss got excited. He started calling other scientists to discuss his results. One was Donald Hildebrandt, at S.C. Johnson Wax. At the time, Moss said he didn't know Johnson makes Off, a leading repellent made with DEET.
Moss told Hildebrandt that DEET might have a promising new use. He also mentioned a hunch that DEET might have something to do with the illnesses being labeled gulf war syndrome.
According to statements later filed by laboratory officials, this is what happened next:
Hildebrandt called Carl Schreck, a scientist at the Gainesville lab known for his DEET research. Hildebrandt wanted to know who Jim Moss was and what he was doing with DEET. Schreck reported this to Richard Brenner, the lab's acting research leader.
Brenner, who described the Johnson company scientist as "very upset," decided to call Ralph Bram, their national program leader.
Bram called Gary Mount, the lab director. As Mount, who is now retired, recalled, "Dr. Bram was upset that Dr. Moss was doing toxicity research with DEET and had apparently discussed his preliminary work with several industry and government representatives."
With Brenner present, Mount called Moss in.
The lab director told Moss that DEET was marketed worldwide as an insect repellent and "that studies on its potential toxicity would obviously be of a sensitive nature." He told him not to discuss preliminary data with anyone outside the lab. He also told him not to gather any more data on DEET and to concentrate on an assigned project.
In Brenner's account, the lab director also asked Moss if he "was aware of the damage that unsubstantiated charges could have" on S.C. Johnson and the Department of Defense.
Further, "Dr. Mount indicated that Jim's reputation was at stake as a scientist and that his behavior certainly was not going to enhance his prospects for future employment," Brenner said.
Moss said he asked Mount to put those orders in writing. When none came, he continued his research.
Initially, Moss suspected DEET might be related to gulf war illnesses because it affects the toxicity of some pesticides. One was permethrin, which gulf war soldiers sprayed on their uniforms.
In December 1993, after being told to end his DEET research, he learned soldiers also had taken a nerve gas pill. It belonged to the same class of compounds as a common group of insecticides.
For six months Moss and his lab technician, Gregory Knue, tested the combined toxicity of DEET, PB and various insecticides on cockroaches.
This was done in an obviously tense environment. Brenner reported that Moss "was always seen carrying his laboratory notebook" as if he were guarding it. And when Moss' supervisor noticed he was "frequently observed meeting and talking to" a fellow researcher, Jack Seawright, he notified director Mount.
Mount had a chat with Seawright.
"I advised Dr. Seawright that under the current circumstances, he should be cautious about interacting with Dr. Moss and that he should not offer him guidance," he said. "I further said that he risked becoming involved in Dr. Moss' problems if he continued interacting with him."
In the spring of 1994, Moss found an ally in the U.S. Senate.
Jay Rockefeller, who chaired its Veterans' Affairs committee, was planning a hearing on military research and the Persian Gulf war. Moss called a committee staffer to talk about his research.
Convinced that Moss might have something important to say, Rockefeller called him as a witness.
On May 6, Rockefeller asked Moss for his preliminary research findings on PB and pesticides.
Moss replied that PB, permethrin - the insecticide sprayed on soldiers' clothing - and eight other pesticide compounds "increased the toxicity of the repellent DEET to some degree."
Rockefeller thanked Moss, noting "for the record, that the Department of Agriculture was not very happy about your coming here today to testify."
That was it. But today, Moss says that brief appearance gave his preliminary findings a future. "This stuff was buried until I went to the Senate hearings,"
Duke continues research
On June 30, 1994, Moss' appointment in Gainesville expired. The laboratory did not renew his appointment, and USDA did not pursue his controversial research project.
A research team led by the Duke University Medical Center's pharmacology department did.
In a 1996 study, they reported that one factor in neurological illnesses among gulf war veterans "may be the simultaneous exposure to multiple agents used to protect the health of service personnel, in particular" PB, DEET and permethrin.
That study used chickens as test animals. Mohamed B. Abou- Donia, its lead researcher, said when all three chemicals were combined, "the effect is very, very strong" - causing death at dosage levels where a single chemical was harmless.
And of Moss' research, he said, "I think he is a very fine scientist."
Matt Puglisi, the American Legion's director for gulf war veterans, credits Moss with opening a door other researchers entered.
"The ultimate flattery for Dr. Moss," he said, "is that his research seems to be getting replicated across the country."
'Outside our mission area'
After Moss lost his job in 1994, he filed a misconduct complaint against his employers. A department investigation concluded it was unfounded.
In 1996, in response to a query from Sen. Rockefeller, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman denied that his agency had stifled Moss' findings.
"In fact we encouraged Dr. Moss to pursue this research" with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense, "where such biomedical work could appropriately be done," he wrote.
USDA says that it did nothing to damage Moss' career, that his DEET research was unauthorized, and that he strayed into a field outside of the department's domain and expertise.
"Let me be clear on one thing," department spokesman Robert Norton said. "Mr. Moss knew before he ever started doing any of his kind of extracurricular investigation that his appointment was supposed to terminate."
The Gainesville entomology lab "is not geared toward doing human toxicology research," Norton said. "That's what he was getting into. What he was doing was outside of our whole mission area."
Moss says USDA officials never encouraged him to take his research elsewhere. "That's bull. That never happened," he said.
To answer the charge that his work was unauthorized, he points to his job description, which listed developing synergists for pesticides as a task.
Since July 1994, Moss has applied for patents on some of his cockroach work and managed to get his DEET toxicity research published. He has worked as a substitute teacher in Gainesville schools. He has done part-time computer research work at home.
He has applied for support from the local Department of Veterans Affairs and for USDA and Defense Department jobs in other states, without success. He has a pending application with the Defense Department to study gulf war illnesses with another researcher.
To date, he says, nobody from the Defense Department has ever called to ask about his findings (still true on 11 Feb, 2012)(Still true on 15 May 2010, J. I. Moss). (as of 7 Feb 2009, this was still true - J.I.M.)