A soldier ducks the prop wash of a helicopter taking off near Kirkuk, Iraq, in 2010. Research is showing that toxins in Iraq's soil dust may be causing serious lung issues in some veterans. (Agence France-Presse)
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When Army Sgt. Jayson Williams deployed to Iraq in 2003, he was a healthy 33-year-old who enjoyed the outdoors, running and playing with his son.
When he returned home, he found he couldn’t do routine chores without becoming exhausted or needing to take deep breaths.
He deployed twice more, and his condition worsened. First thought to be emphysema, his diagnosis later was changed to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. And after having an invasive lung biopsy, he received even grimmer news — constrictive bronchiolitis, an irreversible lung disease that robs a patient of lung function.
Williams thinks his condition is the result of smoke from a burn pit near his barracks and fumes of a sulfur mine fire that raged for a month near Mosul, spewing toxic materials into the air.
But a growing body of research indicates another factor may contribute to long-term respiratory diseases of veterans like Williams: microscopic dust particles containing heavy metals and other toxins.
A long-term study has found that 14 percent of deployed troops reported chronic respiratory symptoms such as cough, bronchitis, shortness of breath and asthma, compared with 10 percent who did not deploy. The results suggest specific exposures, rather than long exposures, may play a role — particularly among ground troops who deployed to the desert environment of the Persian Gulf.
Navy Capt. Mark Lyles, professor of health and security studies at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., began warning of potential health hazards from fine dust particles in 2003.
His team’s analysis found that soil and dust samples from the Persian Gulf region contained microscopic particles carrying microbes and 37 elements and metals, including aluminum, iron, magnesium and tin, some of which have been linked to respiratory problems as well as neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis.
The 'smoking gun'
“I still believe it’s the smoking gun,” said Lyles, who stressed that he was speaking as a researcher and not in an official Navy capacity. “I think the more people concentrate on the burn pits ... the more they dilute the number of people who actually were exposed to environmental toxins. I believe only 3 to 5 percent of service members were exposed to a burn pit. But 100 percent of people who served were exposed to mineralized dust.”
Dr. Anthony Szema, assistant professor of medicine at Stony Brook University in New York, recently did a study that appears to confirm portions of Lyles’ work.
Szema exposed mice to sand collected from Camp Victory, Iraq, in 2007 and later determined they had “angular, sharp and solid” particulates containing titanium and iron in their lungs, which caused the lungs to thicken and provoked a systemic immune response.
When Szema’s team used dust from other locations, including the San Joaquin Valley in California; Kandahar, Afghanistan; and a titanium mine in Montana, “we did not get the same findings,” he said.
The results will be published in March. Szema also presented his findings Feb. 12 to the Defense Health Board in Washington, D.C.
A 2011 study from the Institute of Medicine found there are insufficient data to determine whether burn pits cause long-term health effects. The same report noted that the biggest pollution concern at one of the most controversial sites, Joint Base Balad, Iraq, likely is particulate matter.
The committee said its review of the literature and the data from Balad suggests that service in Iraq or Afghanistan — that is, a broader consideration of air pollution than exposure only to burn pit emissions — might be associated with long-term health effects, particularly in highly exposed populations.
A Defense Department spokeswoman, Army Lt. Col. Catherine Wilkinson, said officials there are aware that some troops experienced persistent or chronic respiratory diseases, “possibly as a result of increased susceptibility, elevated exposures, combined exposures, pre-existing conditions and other factors.”
She said DoD is working to develop screening tools for troops and veterans with symptoms, as well as diagnostic tools to identify disease.
“We take seriously the concerns associated with exposure to airborne hazards, and continue to study possible long-term health effects of this type of exposure during deployments,” Wilkinson said.
But Lyles said the government is not doing enough. Defense and Veterans Affairs Department health officials have held two annual Airborne Hazards Symposia — both closed to the public — and have not invited him to speak or present his team’s data.
In 2004, the Navy never acted on his recommendations that ground-based troops be supplied with masks to limit exposure.
“No one wants me to sit down and show them the scientific facts and data that we gathered,” he said.
“Obviously, once they see the facts and data, they can’t repudiate them,” Lyles said. “DoD has known about our data for 10 years. They don’t want to think about it, and they certainly don’t seem to want to know about it.”
Szema suggested researchers should look at designing specific drugs “based on what we know the injury is. We need to assess [troops] for titanium and look at new drugs to block the effects of the dust.”