Nashville, TN: Countless soldiers have returned from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan with respiratory problems, from asthma to bronchitis, and believe their illnesses stem from open pit burn facilities. And many of them are frustrated because their respiratory conditions haven't been recognized by the VA. But that attitude might change due to a study published today in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Researchers at the Vanderbilt University report in The New England Journal of Medicine "that there is a strong association between constrictive bronchiolitis…in soldiers who served in the Middle East." These findings differ from a 2009 study where researchers found, from a study of 46,000 military personnel, an association between the development of respiratory symptoms and service in Iraq.
The study published today, which evaluated 80 soldiers, is even more troublesome because constrictive bronchiolitis is rare in otherwise healthy adults. The researchers performed open lung biopsies and found scarring inside the small airways of the lungs from soldiers who were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, these findings may help veterans finally prove their disabilities: The study states that "The diagnosis of constrictive bronchiolitis is challenging, especially in the absence of known predisposing conditions." And Dr. Robert F. Miller of Vanderbilt University said that "In a large majority of cases, they were elite athletes at the time of deployment. Now, they can't run two miles." Dr. Matthew King, lead researcher of the study, said that constrictive bronchiolitis is common in people who have had lung or bone marrow transplants, or who have lupus or autoimmune disease, but it is "uncommon in fit, young military personnel or other healthy people."
According to the Military Times, lung disease in soldiers is directly linked to the burn pits, despite earlier reports by military health officials denying any long-term health effects caused by the open pit burn sites. But a second team of doctors disagreed—they found that 56 soldiers in the 101st Airborne Division had bronchiolitis, a disease that is typically associated with organ transplantation, infection, rheumatoid arthritis or toxic fume inhalation. The Military Times reports the following:
"Because there was no scarring on the soldiers' lungs, doctors decided it must have been toxic inhalation and added a fifth cause of bronchiolitis to their list: 'Iraq.'
Since Military Times began reporting in October about burn pits in the war zones, 400 troops have contacted Disabled American Veterans to say they have breathing problems or cancers they believe came after exposure to the burn pits.
Many say they have been diagnosed with "asthma-like" or "allergy-like" symptoms when they've complained of shortness of breath, but their doctors can't come up with an exact diagnosis."
Although Dr. Miller does not definitively link bronchiolitis to open pit burn sites, he says it contributes to this disorder and that this illness is linked to service in the Middle East. However, he urges the US Department of Veterans Affairs to recognize this disorder in making decisions about disability.
Perhaps soldiers suffering from chronic respiratory disease will now be able to file benefits claims that they had difficulty obtaining in the past, but they would be wise to file a claim sooner than later: According to the Defense Department, annual cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease among service members have risen 82 percent since 2001, to 24,555 last year, while cases of all other respiratory illnesses have risen 37 percent.
Jonathan C. was deployed to Camp Speicher in Tikrit, Iraq, between 2007–2008 and his living quarters were "less than a quarter mile from the largest pit in the theatre of operations." Jonathan says he is now suffering from a chronic cough and chronic respiratory infection, yet military doctors have determined his symptoms as "idiomatic" and cannot diagnose anything specific. "I was seen by doctors at Camp Speicher when I was found unconscious after crossing the field adjacent to the burn pit," says Jonathan. "Since my exposure [to the open pit burn site] I was told that I am being released from the military before my contract is complete as a result of medical conditions developed down range..."
Since returning from Iraq, Neil takes allergy medications and steroids daily or he is back in the hospital. "I had no allergy symptoms before serving in Iraq and exposure to burn pits," says Neil, "and I was exposed to burn pits almost daily."
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None of the above three men have had lung biopsies—yet.
Attorney Ben Stewart has seen a number of open pit burn victims with a litany of respiratory complaints, including coughing, scratchy throat, irritated sinuses, runny nose, shortness of breath and chest pain. More severe and chronic symptoms include: heart problems, lymphoma, rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. He urges anyone who was exposed to open pit burning facilities to seek medical help and then seek legal help sooner than later due to the statute of limitations.
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