Toxic Dust Potentially Ailing U.S. Troops Serving in Gulf

Exposure to toxic dust particles in the Middle East may be the cause of several neurological, respiratory, and heart ailments presented by U.S. veterans who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Kuwait since 1991, reports Kelly Kennedy of USA Today

Researchers, led by Navy Capt. Mark Lyles, are dubbing the high levels of metals, bacteria, and fungi in the desert region’s dust a “smoking gun” – the likely cause of common illnesses amongst service-members in the Gulf region. 

The preliminary nature of the study’s findings, however, leaves other experts, like Dr. Arnold Gass of the San Diego VA Medical Center, less convinced.  “Dust can absolutely carry toxins, but to call this a smoking gun may be premature,” Gass tells NBC.  

While further research is needed to substantiate the initial findings, there is increasing speculation surrounding the role dust inhalation plays in the health of troops serving in the Gulf region.  

More than one tenth of soldiers who have served in Iraq now have respiratory ailments, ranging from shortness of breath to the rare disease termed “constrictive bronchiolitis,” which occurs when dust particles constrict small airways in the lungs.  Additionally, veterans who have served since 2001 in the Gulf have been afflicted with neurological disorders at a rate 251% higher than previously documented in U.S. troops.  Per 10,000 active-duty members, an analysis by USA Today found a 47% higher rate of respiratory issues and a 34% increase in cases of cardiovascular disease amongst service-members. 

Dust samples from Iraq and Kuwait collected by Capt. Lyles contained 37 metals that the Environmental Protection Agency has previously linked to cancer, heart disease, neurological and respiratory illnesses.  Another 150 forms of bacteria and disease-spreading fungi were present in the specimens, a quarter of which have been linked to ailments ranging from meningitis and cystic fibrosis to staph infections and diarrhea.  

Shirley Wang of The Wall Street Journal reports findings from another unpublished study conducted by researchers in New York that illustrates a higher rate of debilitating respiratory illnesses amongst troops returning from the Middle East.  Of 1,816 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan examined in the study, 14.5% contracted respiratory illnesses ranging from asthma to bronchitis.  By contrast, 1.8% of 5,335 troops stationed elsewhere were afflicted by respiratory problems.  

Wang notes that multiple risk factors are currently being evaluated to determine the precise cause of the higher rate of illnesses.  She writes of the public and Congressional concern that has been expressed over “burn pits” – open-air fires for burning waste at military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan – and the impact that exposure to their smoke may have on troops’ health.

As of August 2010, the Government Accountability Office documented 251 burn pits in Afghanistan and 22 in Iraq.  Materials incinerated in these pits includes computers, plastic water bottles, old furniture, and biological waste.  A 2009 Senate hearing sought to determine the risk factor posed by exposure to chemicals released from the burn pits, and since, “the armed forces have taken steps to shut down or limit the use of burn pits, and have built incinerators that burn more cleanly,” says Wang.  

Lyles’s research, as reported by Kennedy, stresses that the respiratory danger posed by airborne dust toxins is compounded in the Gulf scenario by the fine particulate structure of the region’s dust.  The extremely small size of the particles facilitates deep inhalation and penetration of the lungs.  

“Scientists know fine particulate matter – that smaller than 10 micrometers, or about one-fourth the size of a single grain of table salt – can cause lung and respiratory problems,” writes Kennedy.  

The consistent wearing of the desert’s protective crust from the movement of heavy military vehicles and equipment has reduced the sands to a fine silt.  Brisk movement through the sands stirs up dust, and increases concentrations of airborne particulates.  Additionally, droughts plaguing the Gulf region in recent years have hampered the growth of brush that typically traps airborne dust, keeping it near to the ground.  These factors are exacerbating the concentration of particulate dust matter in the air.

In fact, the levels of these airborne particulates are three times greater than those the EPA considers safe to be exposed to within a 24-hour period, and then no more than once annually. 

Also identified in Lyles’s samples were the potentially toxic metals: aluminum, chromium, lead, manganese, tin, and strontium.  All occur in the region both naturally and as man-made pollutants.  Fifteen of the bioactive metals identified “are known to cause or have been linked to serious health effects with short- and long-term exposure,” USA Today reports. 

Scientists know that aluminum and lead are linked to Lou Gehrig’s Disease, or ALS, and thus are correlating exposure to those particulate metals with a higher than average number of ALS cases amongst U.S. soldiers. 

“ALS affects about 1 to 2 people per 100,000 – usually men older than 55.  Half of the Desert Storm veterans diagnosed with ALS were younger than 25, and 98% were younger than 55,” Kennedy notes. 

While researchers continue to stress the need for further studies before definitive conclusions can be drawn, the Department of Defense contests Lyles’s theory that the toxic particles are the root cause of common illnesses found in troops, stating there is no established causal relationship between exposure to Gulf sands and the illnesses. 

The department insists the sand samples are no different than sand particles found in the Sahara or other desert regions of the world.  They have “not been able to identify any increased disease that could be associated with the germs that were identified in the soil.”  The Navy supported that conclusion, adding that all cases of cognitive difficulties in troops originated from traumatic brain injuries. 

In response to the New York study reported by Wang, the Dept. of Defense did concede a “modest increase in the incidence of respiratory symptoms in those individuals who have returned from deployment to Southwest Asia.”

Researchers working to better understand the causes note that stress, explosions, and other exposures may be primary or contributing factors in these injuries and illnesses.  

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