Jet Propellant-4: Understanding Jet Fuel Exposure Syndrome Symptoms
Military personnel overseas and on U.S. bases have been exposed to a variety of toxic substances over the past century. Substances like organic solvents, aromatic hydrocarbons, and diesel fuels have caused serious health effects in a number of veterans. Patterns in high-exposure groups, like those exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, have shown that these occupational safety hazards had sweeping health consequences.
Jet fuel exposure has been linked to a number of health effects. Jet fuel vapor and inhalation exposure was common in Vietnam veterans, particularly for air force personnel. However, there were also exposed workers and military personnel on several air force bases in the United States.
Research has found that human exposure to jet fuel can hinder neurobehavioral and cardiac health, as well as pulmonary function. The jet fuels JP-5 and JP-8, as well as Jet A fuels, may also be linked to hearing loss among veterans.
While this blog focuses on JP-4 exposure, it’s important to note that the CDC has released information on Jet A, JP-5, and JP-8 jet fuel exposure. There is little known on the effects of JP-8 and JP-8 exposure (jet propulsion fuel-8) and the other associated fuels. However, animal studies have found that dermal exposure to these chemicals may cause skin alterations. Ingestion through water may also lead to liver damage, immunotoxicity, and hearing impairment.
We will break down these adverse effects of jet fuel exposure syndrome symptoms below.
JP-4 Exposure in Vietnam
JP-4 (Jet Propellant-4) Jet fuel was everywhere in Vietnam. Air Force veterans joke that you know you were in the Air Force when you know what jet fuel tastes like. Huey crews often wiped down their choppers and equipment with JP-4, soldiers would use it to burn trash and feces, and many were chronically exposed to fumes and fuel on their skin. Jets and Huey’s burned it constantly, and there were many instances of large quantities of JP-4 catching fire. In Bien Hoa, in May 1965, 250,000 gallon bladders of JP-4 jet fuel went up in smoke, killing and wounding many troops, and filling lungs with burning fuel.
In “Vietnam: Lessons Learned #74,” a report on defoliation techniques declassified in 1985, it is mentioned twice:
“Where defoliation by hand spray must be done near crops or other desirable vegetation, contaminated Jp-4 or diesel fuel should be used without the addition of the herbicide.”
“[Agent] ORANGE should be mixed with 10 to 20 parts of Jp-4 or diesel fuel (contaminated fuel is acceptable)”
While only tangentially related to jet fuel, in the document is the single greatest paragraph to demonstrate the oxymoronic nature of the phrase “Military Intelligence:”
“All these herbicides [including AO] present low risks to humans and animals. They have been widely used in the US for more than 20 years on food and other crops, rangeland, and forests. No special precautions are needed by air or ground crews and friendly troops are often sprayed without ill effects. None of the herbicides is persistent in soil, and areas must be resprayed periodically to kill regrowth, if the tactical situation requires it.”
“Operation Flyswatter” was a mosquito eradication program in which 1.76 million gallons of malathion pesticide was dusted over the heads of troops, typically right around dusk, when the mosquitos were active, and the men were eating chow below. Many veterans who worked with the project claim that JP-4 or diesel fuel was also often mixed with the pesticides. This makes sense, as pesticides had been routinely mixed with kerosene for a half-century before Vietnam.
Every veteran who set foot in Vietnam is presumed to have Agent Orange exposure, but shouldn’t they be presumed to have JP-4 exposure as well?
Toxic Properties of JP-4
JP-4 is similar to kerosene, and is what’s known as a “wide-cut” fuel. This means that there are a broader range of constituent components than in commercial fuel or gasoline, and it is cheaper to produce. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, there are typically around 100 hydrocarbon-based components alone.
Benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes, known collectively as BTEX, are extremely toxic to humans, and have become a major environmental problem, especially around Air Force Bases. Hill Air Force Base in Utah was designated as an EPA superfund site, after it was discovered to have JP-4 contamination so extensively that BTEX concentration of 5,000 mg/kg up to 95 feet below the surface. For reference, OSHA considers doses above .004 mg/kg to be harmful to humans. Hill AFB is not alone. Luke, Mather, George, Travis, Williams, McClellan, Tyndall, Griffis, Ellsworth, Anderson, and many more Air Force Bases are on the EPA’s Superfund list, either for BTEX, PCBs, Trichloroethylene, or other contamination. Are we to believe that dangerous levels of these chemicals exist 100 feet below the surface (as well as in the groundwater at many locations), but that Airmen on the surface are not exposed? You didn’t necessarily need to be handling fuel tanks to be exposed or experience the health risks. Even a cook or an information management specialist is being exposed, simply by existing on base.
It would appear that JP-4 was so ubiquitous in Vietnam-era military operations that nearly every veteran had some exposure. It would even appear that modern-day soldiers, sailors and airmen are still being exposed from JP-4 environmental contamination on military bases, years after the military moved on from JP-4 in 1995 to JP-5, JP-7, and JP-8.
We will break down the adverse effects of jet fuel exposure below.
Effects of Jet Fuel: JP-4 Exposure and Neurological Diseases
JP-4 is comprised of many neurotoxic and carcinogenic substances, and it is likely that chronic exposure to JP-4 can lead to severe neurological problems. The brain and peripheral nervous system is particularly vulnerable to damage from chemical exposure, as “aromatic” hydrocarbons and “volatile” organic compounds are often absorbed through the nose, which has fewer barriers between the outside world and the brain. This neurotoxicity is compounded by the fact that many of these chemicals are lipid-soluble chemicals that are able to cross the blood-brain barrier easily. Often, relatively small losses of neurons that utilize neurotransmitters can have great repercussions. It’s sort of like how a paper cut on your finger isn’t too bad, but the thought of getting one on your eye makes your heart race. The neurological system is delicate, vulnerable, and damage is often permanent, as brain cells do not regenerate. Neurological examinations may show neurological damage in veterans, and this may be due to exposure to toxins over the exposure limits.
Previous studies have shown that the toxic effects of jet fuel may cause the following health conditions:
Parkinson’s Disease and its related syndromes are typically caused by damage or dysfunction of dopamine-secreting cells in an area of the brain called the substantia nigra. Several components of JP-4 can cause either direct damage to these cells, or cause mutations in specific genes. In fact, 20% of Parkinson patients have been found to have chronic exposure to hydrocarbons. Exposure to hydrocarbons can not only cause Parkinson’s, but often cause an earlier onset, speed up the progression of the disease, and increase the severity of symptoms. The hexane in JP-4 has been shown to create lesions in the central nervous system, which lead to both peripheral neuropathy as well as Parkinson’s. Toulene has been shown to induce changes in the expression of the SKP1 gene , which not only can cause Parkinson’s disease, but also affects tumor suppressors.
Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia
While there seems to be at least a small genetic component of Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementias, there has been a great deal of research that shows occupational exposure to certain chemicals can cause, worsen, or accelerate dementia. Solvent exposure, such as that to benzene and toluene, has been shown to correlate with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s Disease, and recently, there has been much research that is implicating exposure to metals such as lead (which is found in JP-4) have also been implicated in dementia.
As mentioned above, the n-hexane found in JP-4 has been shown to cause peripheral neuropathy, and distal nerve fiber degeneration throughout the nervous system. In some cases, the peripheral neurodegeneration caused by chronic exposure to n-hexane and its metabolites can lead to atrophy of the skeletal muscles.
Brain Damage/Toxic Encephalopathy
The brain is subject to damage from chemical injury, just as it is vulnerable to physical injury, and it often results in what is known as toxic encephalopathy. This isn’t a distinct disease or disorder. It just means disorder (“pathy”) relating to the brain (“encephalo”) caused by toxins. It tends to be used as a catch-all to describe damage done to the brain that can’t be labelled as “Parkinson’s” or another discrete neurological disease.
Toulene and xylene (along with trichloroethylene (TCE,) which is a solvent many in the military use on a regular basis, including many who are regularly exposed to JP-4, such as aircraft mechanics and electronics technicians) have both been shown repeatedly to cause symptoms of brain atrophy, reduction in nerve conduction, loss of both grey and white matter, and a general “clinical syndrome of premature aging of cortical function.”
Chronic exposure to toulene has been shown to affect the function of the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors in the hippocampus. This leads to an average of 7% decrease in cognitive function, including visual memory, verbal memory, visual pattern perception, and even manual dexterity.
Other Neurological problems
While research on occupational exposure to chemicals and other neurological disorders such as Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and Huntington’s does not show a direct correlation, it is likely that the damage and oxidative stress caused by occupational exposure to the neurotoxins found in jet fuel can worsen the symptoms or progression of these disorders.
Effects of Jet Fuel: JP-4 Exposure and Cardiovascular Disease
We’ve learned thus far that JP-4 jet fuel exposure was more common than Coca-Cola exposure for the majority of Vietnam-era veterans. Vietnam veterans already have enough to worry about with regards to their cardiovascular system. PTSD is shown to increase risk for heart disease, and Agent Orange and the TCDD that contaminated it have also been shown to greatly increase the rates of heart disease in Vietnam-era Veterans. The constituent components of JP-4 can increase those odds even further.
There are over 100 hydrocarbons in JP-4, from the basic aromatic hydrocarbons and alkanes to more complicated polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, isoalkanes, and cycloparaffins (a full list can be found on page 72 here).
While the medical community is much more focused on the carcinogenic nature of most of these chemicals, several studies have shown them to be quite damaging to the cardiovascular system as well. Exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons has been associated with an, elevated blood pressure and heart rate, contributes to arteriosclerosis, and an elevated risk of ischemic heart disease and mortality from cardiovascular disease.
As if exposure to JP-4 vapors wasn’t harmful enough, when JP-4 is burned, it also releases carbon monoxide and dioxide, airborne particulate matter, and sulfur and sulfur-based compounds. Carbon monoxide and dioxide exposure can deprive the heart of oxygen, causing long-lasting damage. Sulfur compounds have been shown to cause myocardial ischemia, hypertension, and weakening of the cardiac muscles.
No single organ or system in the body stands alone, however. As these chemicals are also heavily damaging to other systems and organs, when these organs fail the heart can be affected. Benzene can make diabetes and other metabolic problems worse, cause neurological damage, as well as damage the lungs and respiratory tract severely. Even if the heart itself was not affected by chronic exposure, it is often a secondary victim due to failures in the systems that support it. As many of these chemicals are severe carcinogens, it is likely that cancers caused by JP-4 such as lung cancer can cause a cascading effect that ultimately weakens the entire body, including the heart.
The “triple threat” of PTSD, Agent Orange/dioxin exposure, and JP-4 exposure can be devastating to the heart. Veterans who were stationed in CONUS, Thailand, or other areas during the Vietnam era often attempt to fight the VA for a presumption of Agent Orange exposure, and often lose. I have researched many of these cases, and seen many arguments where veterans who were very likely exposed to Agent Orange have been denied claims by the VA over technicalities. However, the 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzodioxin (TCDD) in Agent Orange is actually very similar to benzene and some of the other chemicals in JP-4. In fact, both benzene and TCDD are both active at the very same aryl hydrocarbon receptors in the body, which means that many illnesses caused by TCDD could be caused by benzene and other hydrocarbons. This, of course, includes heart disease.
Jet Fuel Exposure & Your VA Disability Claim
Again, U.S. air force personnel are the main exposed group when it comes to JP-4. While the specific human health effects of jet fuel depend on the exposure levels, long and short-term exposure can have significant impacts on human health. If you experienced high level or long-term exposure to JP-4 jet fuel, you may be entitled for VA disability compensation for your illness. Contact the team at Hill & Ponton today for a free case evaluation.