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Troops in Mideast Have More Respiratory Ills, Data Show

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SHIRLEY S. WANG – (Wall Street Journel) – May 16, 2011 – Veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have a higher rate of debilitating respiratory illness than those deployed elsewhere, according to a new study that bolsters concerns among some medical professionals and members of Congress about the potential harm to troops from toxic chemicals and dust in the Middle East.

Soldiers who served in Iraq or Afghanistan complain of lingering coughs, shortness of breath, dizziness and other symptoms. Now, scientists say troops who served in the Middle East have higher rates of respiratory problems compared to those who served elsewhere. WSJ’s Shirley Wang reports.

The findings, which will be presented Wednesday at the International Conference of the American Thoracic Society in Denver, place renewed urgency on getting at the root of why some young, previously healthy soldiers have been returning from the Middle East complaining of symptoms including shortness of breath and dizziness. In many cases, the soldiers can no longer pass a required physical to continue with active duty.

There appears to be “a modest increase in the incidence of respiratory symptoms in those individuals who have returned from deployment to Southwest Asia,” said Craig Postlewaite, director of the Department of Defense’s Force Readiness and Health Assurance office.

Data collected from more than 7,000 veterans who served between 2004 and 2010—thought to be the largest study of its kind to date—show that some 14.5% of the 1,816 of the veterans in the study who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan had respiratory illnesses, including bronchitis and asthma. That compares with 1.8% of the 5,335 veterans deployed anywhere else, according to researchers in New York state who conducted the study.

“We’re confident we are detecting airway obstruction,” said Anthony Szema, a professor of medicine and surgery at the State University of New York at Stony Brook School of Medicine, who will be presenting the findings this week. Dr. Szema, who also serves as chief of the allergy section at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northport, N.Y., conducted the research under the authorization of that VA Medical Center.

The data haven’t yet been published but were selected by experts in the field to be presented at the conference. They are consistent with results of a smaller study Dr. Szema’s team published last year in the journal Allergy and Asthma Proceedings.

Congress and the military have launched investigations into the issue, including a 2009 Senate hearing focused on one possible cause: toxins released from facilities known as “burn pits,” open-air fires used to dispose of trash at military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the past, the pits have burned everything from plastic water bottles and computers to medical waste.

Other possible culprits, according to researchers, include Mideast dust storms where tiny, porous particles carry metals, fungi or bacteria from other sources, and blast pressure from explosive devices.

The military said in a 2008 report that particles released from the burn pits didn’t exceed levels sanctioned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Assessments by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center and the Naval Health Research Center “provide no indication at this time on a population-wide basis that burn-pit smoke exposures result in any long-term health risks,” Dr. Postlewaite said.

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