(NASHVILLE, Tenn.) -- A growing number of soldiers who have served early on in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are now being diagnosed with deployment-related lung disease from inhaling toxic waste from sources like dust storms, combat smoke, and burn pits used to incinerate material, human waste, debris, and chemicals.
While the U.S. Department of Defense reports that it has shut down all burn pits in Iraq -- replacing some with closed incinerators -- and plans to do the same in Afghanistan by the end of the year, new evidence suggests the health effects may be irreparable for soldiers who were already exposed.
A new report by researchers at Vanderbilt University found that nearly half of 80 soldiers in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, who could not pass a standard 2-mile run because of breathing problems, were diagnosed with constrictive bronchiolitis. More than 80 percent of those with constrictive bronchiolitis were exposed to dust storms and more than 60 percent were exposed to burn pits, according to the report, which was published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.
"I don't' think that we can say that our data says these exposures are the cause, at least not of yet," said Dr. Robert Miller of Vanderbilt University Medical Center. "But I think it is very concerning."
Standard tests that are used to detect respiratory diseases, such as a pulmonary function test or CT scan, could not pick up the soldiers' condition. Only a lung biopsy could detect constrictive bronchiolitis in the soldiers, he said.
"A large number of soldiers who have these respiratory disorders are being missed," said Miller, who suggested that more soldiers may have a form of respiratory condition and not know it.
And Miller said many doctors won't test further if standard tests fail to find anything.
"It's unusual for someone to take people normal on the tests and still give them a biopsy, but it's the only way these guys would've gotten the compensation that they needed," he said.
Miller said serious respiratory cases might be easier to detect if soldiers had a record of their breathing capacity before deploying.
"Everybody that is deployed should get a pulmonary function test before deploying," he said. "If we have baseline breathing test on everybody we were seeing, then that would limit the amount of biopsies."
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