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U.S. Veterans and Lung Injuries: Links to Injured Workers at Home

Tank FiringThe wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have taken a toll on this country in obvious ways: lost military lives and billions of dollars spent.  Less obvious are the lasting repercussions for our men and women in uniform who do return from the war.  The New York Times reported today on the extreme stresses placed on families who must fill the role of caregiver for returning injured soldiers.  Unfortunately, it seems the list of injuries common to returning soldiers is about to expand again.

While most Americans are familiar with the post-traumatic stress syndrome suffered by many soldiers returning from war, recent studies have shown that there are other physical traumas brought back from the battlefield beyond shrapnel wounds and amputations.

The battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan are novel and sometime toxic environments, with soldiers encountering everything from spent munitions to oil drilling by-products.  Included in this mix is smoke from open fires burning a number of materials, from plastics to chemicals.  Often, soldiers who encountered these conditions experience difficulty breathing when they return to the home front.

The September issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine announced that these soldiers may be suffering from a newly recognized condition and that there is a distinct need for better lung function testing.

Dr. Anthony M. Szema of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center proposes the term “Iraq/Afghanistan War Lung Injury” (IAW-LI) as a designation for this new disease.  Dr. Szema notes that the number of returning soldiers exhibiting symptoms that require pulmonary function tests is high.  In fact, the Veterans Affairs Medical Center study asserts that nearly 1 in 7 veterans exhibit symptoms that eventually lead to spirometry, a common lung function test.

Studying s group of more than 7,000 active-duty soldiers in the New York and Long Island area, researchers found that 14.5 percent had symptoms that led to spirometry as compared to 1.8 percent of soldiers who did not serve in the Middle East.  Researchers noted that the rate of smoking was much higher for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, but that this could still not account for the statistical difference.

While researchers already knew that Middle East veterans suffered from higher rates of asthma, the results of the spirometry tests suggest a type of lung injury causing irreversible decline in lung function.

 What Causes the Injury?

While war is of course inherently risky to one’s health, the ongoing campaigns in the Middle East have presented soldiers with especially treacherous environments.  The deserts, wilderness and cities of Iraq and Afghanistan have been polluted with the leftover scraps and chemicals of exploded and unexploded munitions, heavy vehicles, and oil production.  The study suggests many possibilities: toxins, inhaling sharp and course dust grains, and allergens.  Lung damage can also result from mechanical means like blast pressure or shock waves from IEDs.

Lung damage can also result from inhaling smoke from open burn pits, which are used to destroy everything from jet fuel to plastic water bottles.

Can We Prevent Lung Damage?

The authors of the study name a number of ways soldiers can avoid this lung condition.  Clearly the practice of burning fuel and materials in open pits must be replaced with an incinerator and recycling system.  Also, soldiers should have more access to the use of respiratory protection devices.

Should Civilian Workers Be Concerned?

 The symptoms of IAW-LI do have precedent in certain populations of domestic, civilian workers, as in the infamous case of “Popcorn Workers’ Lung.”  Former microwave popcorn plant employees sued and won large settlements against their employers after inhaling large amounts of the chemical diacetyl.  Also, uncounted employees have encountered chemicals in the workplace that can lead to a condition called occupational asthma.  This disease is a specific kind of asthma that is the product of workplace conditions where outside sources are not, at least initially, the stimuli.

If you think you may be suffering from occupational asthma, or any other work-related injury, be sure to first seek medical care.  Next, you should contact an experienced Washington Workers’ Compensation Lawyer at Emery Reddy to discuss your options.


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