THIS IS A SINGULARLY DISTURBING STORY ABOUT THE VERY AIR WE BREATHE—AND THE DUST IT CONTAINS—KILLING US UNPLEASANTLY
IN THIS CASE, THE VICTIMS ARE OUR SOLDIERS—BUT TINY PARTICULATE MATTER IS KILLING CIVILIANS TOO.
US, FOR INSTANCE? OUR LIFESTYLES PRODUCE IT IN ABUNDANCE
Though I generally consider myself Irish—with a name like O’Reilly I have had little choice in the matter (nor desire to be otherwise)—but I was actually born in London, England. I was largely brought up in Ireland but educated in both. Damnably confusing!
SMOG. We lived in or near London, for a while when I was small, and I vividly remember London smog at its worst. The combination of smoke from hundreds of thousands of coal fires—maybe million—now and then combined with fog, to produce what was known as a “pea-souper” (which maligns pea soup). Car exhaust doubtless added to the murk.
DANGEROUS STUFF. It was unpleasant to breathe, dangerous to travel through, and fatal to significant numbers of people. It was also rather exciting, as far as far as this little boy was concerned, because it made the city feel mysterious—and I was convinced Jack the Ripper was hidden behind every corner. I wasn’t too frightened, because the good news was that, reportedly, he only killed women—but one could never be quite certain.
AIR POLLUTION KILLS. Be that as it may, such encounters with smog have left me particularly aware of air pollution. Witnessing a number of people dying from breathing problems—induced by smoking—or from coal mining (I lived in Wales for a while) have also made me sensitive to the consequences. COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary disease) results in a dubious quality of life, is incurable, and is not a pleasant way to go.
Indeed, I have something of a horror of air pollution and regard our general indifference to it unless it is highly visible, or smells, as decidedly unwise. In fact, in that spirit, I regard our acceptance of traffic as a strange human eccentricity—and am a great believer in public transport and anything that cuts down on car exhaust.
Yes, I accept we need vehicles—up to a point—but have no doubt at all we could manage with fewer and would be a great deal healthier if we all walked a great deal more. But, I will admit a bias—I have always loved walking.
INVISIBLE, BUT LETHAL. I have long suspected that invisible pollution may matter a great deal more than we think—and recent research would seem to support that disconcerting situation.
Will we do anything about it? Probably not a great deal. We went through a phase of being environmentally concerned some decades ago, but that seems to be out of fashion now.
Wars, however, are decidedly in vogue. They have unpleasant consequences.
I read the following story with concern—I have many friends who have served—and sadness.
Surely, we can do better. When I read about the seemingly implacable Republican opposition to cleaning up our air—coupled with their willingness to throw money at defense, virtually regardless of the need, I am just plain dumbfounded.
Don’t they breathe too? Mostly, politicians don’t fight in the wars they arrange. They let others do the dying.
New research links Iraq dust to ill soldiersusatoday.com · by Kelly Kennedy, USA TODAY 12:21 a.m. EDT June 2, 2014
Dozens of Iraqi veterans have been diagnosed with constrictive bronchiolitis, a narrowing of the lung’s smallest passageways.(Photo: Jim Watson, AFP)
WASHINGTON — Titanium and other metals found in dust at a base in Iraq have been linked to the dust found in six sick soldiers’ lungs, according to a study set to be released Monday.
“We biopsied several patients and found titanium in every single one of them,” said Anthony Szema, an assistant professor at Stony Brook School of Medicine who specializes in pulmonology and allergies. “It matched dust that we have collected from Camp Victory” in Iraq.
The dust is different from dust found elsewhere in that human lungs are unable to dispel it through natural immune-system processes. The Iraq dust comes attached to iron and copper, and it forms polarizable crystals in the lungs, Szema said. The particles — each bit 1/30th the size of a human hair — have sharp edges.
“They’ve inhaled metal,” Szema said. “It’s not a little; it’s a lot.”
All of the veterans came in for help because they were short of breath, said Szema, who also heads the allergy clinic at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northport, N.Y. Dozens have been diagnosed with constrictive bronchiolitis, a narrowing of the lung’s smallest passageways that occurs only after exposure to an environmental toxin or in lung-transplant patients.
There are several theories as to why the dust is different, said Szema, who will release his study at the Symposium on Lung Health after Deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan.
It may have been created by burn pits used to eliminate everything from Styrofoam to vehicles to computers to unexploded ordnance in both Iraq and Afghanistan. At Balad Air Base in Iraq, workers burned 240 tons of trash a day in an open pit a mile from servicemembers’ sleeping quarters.
It may be naturally occurring.
Or it may have been produced in the 1991 Persian Gulf war when Iraqi missiles and U.S. bombs melded dust to metal, said Antonietta Gatti, a member of the Italian Scientific Committee for Prevention and Control of Diseases in soldiers of the Italian Ministry of Defense. She specializes in studying nanoparticulate matter.
Szema and his team had the lung biopsies analyzed at the Department of Energy’s National Laboratories, where they could hit it with “world’s brightest light,” Szema said. Each sample showed a crystal with dust inside.
In March, his team published a study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine after exposing mice to samples of the same dust. The mice developed lung inflammation similar to that seen in humans, including the inability to push the crystals out of their lungs. Their T-cell counts also went down to less than 30% of what they’d had before exposure. A T-cell is a white blood cell key to immunity.
“The cells that defend lung cells can not engulf and digest the titanium,” Szema said. “It’s different from other dust.”
Titanium and iron are both associated with pulmonary fibrosis and pulmonary hypertension in humans, Szema said.
Last month, the Defense Department released its annual relative morbidity report. A USA TODAY analysis of reports dating from 2001 to 2013, as well as Defense Manpower Data, shows that the number of people reporting respiratory and chest symptoms increased from a rate of 406 per 10,000 in 2001 to 744 per 10,000 in 2013.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a disease typically associated with smoking that usually strikes in people older than 40, increased from a rate of 98 per 10,000 in 2001 to 147 in 2013. It hit a high of 218 per 10,000 in 2009.
“All other respiratory disease” increased from a rate of 150 per 10,000 in 2001 to 273 per 10,000 in 2013.
An Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center report from 2012 also showed a 150 per 1,000 rate of clinic visits for respiratory diseases before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a rate of 173 per 1,000 rate during the war years.
Szema’s research has shown that 14% of servicemembers who deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan had new-onset respiratory problems, including shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing and chest tightness.
Bob Miller, a pulmonologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee, diagnosed chronic bronchiolitis in 50 101st Airborne soldiers at Fort Campbell, Ky., after they complained of being short of breath. He had to perform biopsies to make the diagnosis as the disease is hard to spot with an X-ray or other imaging technology.
“This looks pretty similar to Bob’s data,” Szema said. “It’s pretty scary.”
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usatoday.com · by Kelly Kennedy, USA TODAY 12:21 a.m. EDT June 2, 2014