From the beginning of the Gulf War on August 2, 1990, and continuing up through the deployment of American and coalition troops into Afghanistan, military personnel have come down with a mysterious and assorted set of symptoms, called Gulf War Syndrome.
While the term Gulf War Syndrome has been used to cover a multitude of illnesses, one particularly devastating and sometimes fatal illness associated with the syndrome, pulmonary fibrosis, is a very real threat. CBS has been reporting on developments concerning this mysterious lung ailment as well as other diseases associated with the syndrome since last spring.
The issue is dust particles. The dust particles are very small and appear to be deadly. Troops in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan have been inhaling a toxic stew of metals, bacteria and fungi on a daily basis, and researchers say the dust and the particles of soot inhaled from burn-pits may explain the Gulf War Syndrome as well as the severe respiratory, heart and neurological ailments veterans are coming home with.
The burning pits
When the Gulf War was in full swing, there were 505 military bases scattered around Iraq. Joint Base Balad, a 15-square-mile outpost north of Baghdad, was the coalition forces second largest base. Home to 36,000 military personnel and contractors, it was a vital hub for operations all across Iraq. Besides all the amenities one could find back home in the states, there was a huge 10 acre burning pit.
Everything was burned there, from paper and kitchen refuse to lithium batteries, rubber, Styrofoam, , ammunition, explosives, human feces, animal carcasses, asbestos insulation, and human body parts. The toxic smoke that permeated the air, along with the soot was bad, but the smell could even be worse. The burn-pit wasn't unique to this one camp, but was the order of business at military bases all across Iraq, operated by either the military or private contractors.
This week, CBS will be expanding on the story when Dr. Anthony Szema, a professor at Stony Brook University School of Medicine presents evidence to a Pentagon subcommittee on his research team's findings after analyzing dust from burn pits at Camp Victory in Iraq.
Dr. Szema told CBS News in March, 2013 the dust from Camp Victory was "very toxic." He and his team have been working on an analysis of dust from the burn pits for a number of years, as well as following veterans who returned with respiratory problems. Szema says over 14 percent of those being studied returned from overseas with some sort of pulmonary complications.
Explaining the research done on the toxic dust, Dr. Szema said, "After one month of exposure of sub-lethal doses of this dust, we can see septate thickening or lung fibrosis in the mice lungs. So, if we give a larger dose, it will kill the mouse. Eventually in a human, that would lead to a lung transplant."Explaining the "Iraqi Crud" in 2012
In 2012, Dr. Smeza was interviewed by the Army Times. Explaining his research into the toxic dust, he said, “What makes healthy individuals who have never had asthma end up in wheelchairs on oxygen, or a 34-year-old non-smoker who has near-normal [physical fitness tests] but, is short of breath and has lungs that are totally destroyed? These are the problems we are trying to solve.”
Szema also submitted a paper to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in 2012, outlining his findings in a young soldier who had served in both Iraq and Kuwait, who has lungs riddled with titanium, iron and copper. The soldier was suffering from interstitial pneumonitis, a rare, untreatable disease that is 60 percent fatal within six months of diagnosis.
Defense Department response in 2011 reminiscent of "Agent Orange" issue
According to the Environmental Protection Agency(EPA), "The metals inhaled by soldiers have been linked to neurological disorders, cancer, respiratory ailments, depression and heart disease." A study of the military morbidity records conducted in 2011 by USA Today found that from 2001 to 2010, there was a 251 percent increase in neurological disorders, a 47 percent increase in respiratory ailments and a 34 percent rise in cardiovascular disorders per 10,000 active-duty service members.
Yet despite this report and other information available at that time, Defense Department officials contended there were no health issues associated with the dust. The response by our government was similar to the response Viet Nam vets heard when Agent Orange, a toxic chemical used for deforestation, was suggested as the causative agent for mysterious lesions and cancers many veterans developed. Hopefully, someone will listen with an open mind to Dr. Szema's report this week.