Data from the defense department shows that complaints of lung problems in troops rose from 406 per 10,000 in 2001 to 744 per 10,000 in 2013. Incidents of Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) rose from 98 per 10,000 in 2001 218 per 10,000 in 2009. We’ve written before about the effects of burn pits and oil well fires in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as ultrafine particulate matter. However, research has uncovered something similar to particulate matter, which may also be responsible for the fact that 14% of returning veterans are diagnosed with respiratory illness.
One study analyzed dust samples from Camp Victory, Iraq, and found something surprising: tiny, sharp pieces of metal. Specifically, titanium, calcium, iron and silica shards less that .001 millimeters, a fraction of the width of a human hair. Further, researchers have studied lung biopsies from returning vets who had been experiencing respiratory problems, and found the same tiny bits of metal in every single one of them. Unlike normal dust particles, these particles can’t be removed by the cells in the lungs, and may stay in lung tissue forever. Dr. Anthony Szema of Stony Brook School of Medicine in New York told USA Today “”We biopsied several patients and found titanium in every single one of them. It matched dust that we have collected from Camp Victory…They’ve inhaled metal. It’s not a little; it’s a lot.”
These tiny metal shards lodge themselves in the lung tissue of troops, and cause severe inflammation. This inflammation leads to respiratory problems, most commonly COPD. However, as I’ve written about before, chronic inflammation is one of the hallmarks of cancer, and we have no way of knowing just yet if we are looking at an epidemic of lung cancer in Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. When soldiers are exposed to the extremely dangerous toxins in burn pit smoke and oil well fires, as well as JP Jet fuels, there is a chance that small tumors may develop in their lung tissue. This sort of thing happens often in everyone, but our immune systems are often adept at stopping the growth by causing the cells to “commit suicide,” or by cutting off nutrients the dangerous cells need to grow. However, sometimes when an area is inflamed, the body believes it needs to heal the area, and sends “healing signals” that actually help the cancer cells.
For Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, it is imperative that you report any respiratory problems to your doctor immediately. Veterans should be on the lookout for symptoms such as:
-Shortness of breath, especially during physical activities
-Having to clear throat first thing in the morning, due to excess mucus in lungs
-A chronic cough that produces sputum that may be clear, white, yellow or greenish
-Blueness of the lips or fingernail beds (cyanosis)
-Frequent respiratory infections
-Lack of energy
-Unintended weight loss
-Exacerbations—severe episodes during which symptoms become worse and persist for days or longer
It is still unclear whether this metal dust is the result of burn pits, but the Institute of Medicine’s studies have concluded that the air at Joint Base Balad in Iraq had more particulate matter and 6 times more dioxins than Beijing, China, whose air quality is so terrible, it is barely inhabitable. Returning veterans need to ensure they get regular respiratory exams and report any symptoms to the VA immediately.