When most of us think of arsenic, we think of old mystery movies, plays, or Agatha Christie novels, where it is used as a poisonous murder weapon. However, what most of us don’t realize is that many veterans were exposed to small amounts of arsenic on a daily basis, often for years. While exposure to lower levels of arsenic may not result immediately in death, many disabilities and death may arise years after exposure.
The most common routes of exposure in service-members are from jet fuel exhaust, diesel exhaust, and burn pits. Arsenic is released in small quantities from the process of fuel combustion, and is released from several sources being incinerated in burn pits. In addition to burn pits, soldiers deployed to the desert were exposed to sandstorms and everyday desert dust, which itself contains a slew of toxic metals, including arsenic. I’ve written before about particulate matter and this toxic dust in Iraq that has caused an outbreak of respiratory illness in veterans, however the damage from arsenic is not confined to the lungs.
In the absence of exposure to Agent Orange, arsenic exposure is your strongest argument to service-connect your diabetes mellitus. Arsenic is one of the few chemicals which can cause diabetes after chronic exposure. Diabetes, of course, comes with a whole slew of secondary illnesses.
Arsenic exposure can cause many lesions and other unpleasant skin conditions. It is quite common for these illnesses to manifest 3 to 7 years after exposure. Arsenic also can cause skin cancer, and arsenic-caused skin cancer can take up to 40 years to manifest.
Chronic exposure to arsenic often begins with peripheral neuropathy, and the damage to your peripheral nerves can progress and lead to some paralysis of your extremities. Exposure to arsenic can affect your senses, especially hearing. Arsenic toxicity can also lead to a disorder that is often misdiagnosed as Guillain-Barre syndrome, an antiimmune disorder that occurs when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks part of the PNS, resulting in nerve inflammation that causes muscle weakness.
Arsenic is an irritant to your digestive tract, and often causes chronic esophagitis, gastritis, colitis, abdominal discomfort, anorexia, and trouble absorbing nutrients from your food.
Arsenic exposure can enlarge your liver, cause cirrhosis, and cause fatty degeneration of the liver.
Arsenic can wreak havoc on your blood, causing bone marrow hypoplasia, aplastic anemia, leukopenia, clotting trouble, and anemia. Your heart can also be affected, as arsenic causes arrhythmias, pericarditis, ischemic heart disease, and hypertension.
As I’ve mentioned, arsenic exposure can have severe implications for the lungs. Not only does arsenic exposure cause lung cancer, but also emphysema , restrictive lung disease, as well as bronchitis.
Veterans must be aware that chronic arsenic exposure may be responsible for their disability, even if it has been years since their exposure to fuel exhaust or burn pits. If you are experiencing one or more of the above disabilities, it is important that you think back to your time in service, and ask yourself my “Five Questions to Ask yourself When Proving VA Service Connection for Chemical Exposure.” Some Vietnam-era veterans spend years fighting the VA, trying to show Agent Orange exposure without boots on the ground, when their disability may have been caused by arsenic all along.