Deployed troops inhaled toxic air even while off-duty, study finds

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Newly released research warns that troops who served overseas since 2001 faced significant levels of airborne contaminants both while on duty or at rest, underscoring the potential long-term health risks facing all individuals who deployed.

The research, conducted by the National Jewish Health and the United States Geological Survey, found high levels of silica and other particulate matter in the lungs of troops who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Qatar, Kuwait and other Southwest Asian locations.

The findings pointed to air contamination, not just from burn pits used to dispose of military waste but also sandstorms and vehicle exhaust fumes, all of which created toxic conditions regardless of the missions being performed.

“Military operations generate airborne hazards, not just at work but also during leisure activities and sleep, due to the environmental realities of many deployment locations,” researchers wrote.

Lawmakers have already recognized the widespread hazardous conditions for troops who served during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

In the 2022 PACT Act — legislation designed to significantly expand the number of toxic exposure conditions for which veterans can receive disability compensation — all troops who served in those regions were presumed to have faced potentially toxic air conditions and made eligible for corresponding benefits.

But researchers said the new findings show that deployed troops who may have assumed they avoided the worst air pollution were likely still exposed to abnormally high levels of particulate matter regardless of their work.

“Within the deployer population, those who had combat jobs had a higher total particulate matter burden, though the difference was not statistically significant,” the report stated.

Lung samples from service members they tested found traces of toxic vaporized metals and other hazardous items, well above that of non-deployed personnel. Researchers said the findings point to the need for more careful study of air quality for future deployments to curb potential health risks.

The full report was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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