Toxic Dust and the Military

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Research suggests that U.S. combat troops, typically a healthy group of individuals, are suffering ill health effects from toxic dust. According to this article appearing last week in USA TODAY:

U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait have inhaled microscopic dust particles laden with toxic metals, bacteria and fungi — a toxic stew that may explain everything from the undiagnosed Gulf War Syndrome symptoms lingering from the 1991 war against Iraq to high rates of respiratory, neurological and heart ailments encountered in the current wars.

"From my research and that of others, I really think this may be the smoking gun," says Navy Capt. Mark Lyles, chair of medical sciences and biotechnology at the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. "It fits everything — symptoms, timing, everything."

Lyles and other researchers found that dust particles — up to 1,000 of which can sit on the head of a pin — gathered in Iraq and Kuwait contain 37 metals, including aluminum, lead, manganese, strontium and tin. The metals have been linked to neurological disorders, cancer, respiratory ailments, depression and heart disease, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Researchers believe the metals occur both naturally and as a byproduct of pollution.

. . .

The dust contains 147 different kinds of bacteria, as well as fungi that could spread disease, Lyles found. Since the wars began in Iraq in 2003 and in Afghanistan in 2001, the military has seen a 251% increase in the rate of neurological disorders per 10,000 active-duty servicemembers, a 47% rise in the rate of respiratory issues and a 34% increase in the rate of cardiovascular disease, according to a USA TODAY analysis of military morbidity records from 2001 to 2010. Those increases have researchers seeking possible causes.

How does the Defense Department respond to this research?

Despite the research by Lyles and others, and the documented spikes in respiratory illnesses, Defense Department officials contend there are no health issues associated with the dust.

. . .

Capt. J.A. "Cappy" Surrette, spokesman for the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, said Navy researchers investigated to see whether the dust in Iraq and Afghanistan is toxic. The Navy has no record of troops complaining of cognitive difficulties unrelated to traumatic brain injuries, he says.

However, he says the Naval Health Research laboratory found that trace metals in the dust showed levels of toxicity.

"There is no definitive basis to say the sand is harmful to people or animals," he says.

However, one Navy study is examining the toxicity of sand from Afghanistan to see how it affects cell death, he says. A second is looking at whether Afghanistan dust contributes to brain trauma pathology in animals.

Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Rob Erckenbrack, 40, of West Fargo, N.D., deployed at Taqaddum, Iraq, in 2006, and guarded the perimeter at Taji, Iraq, in 2008. He began losing weight, and having respiratory problems and migraines. He also dealt with short-term memory loss but says he was not in an incident that would have caused a traumatic brain injury. In June 2010, he had a stroke.

"My doctors were surprised because I'm a healthy, active, adult," he says. "Then another guy from my unit went through the same thing."

The parallels with exposure to toxic mold are evident. Especially in light of the fact that 20 million 5-micron mold spores fit on a single postage stamp.

Despite the controversy, it's clear that the air we breathe matters. Both at home and at war.