WASHINGTON, July 20, 2011 — The Defense Department continues to be concerned that airborne dust and smoke may pose health risks to deployed service members, the department’s chief of health assurance said here yesterday.
However, R. Craig Postlewaite told the Pentagon Channel, there is no evidence to suggest that service members deployed to U.S. Central Command are being disproportionately affected by environmental factors.
“DOD believes it is plausible that some individuals could be adversely affected by either the smoke or the sand and dust [in the region],” Postlewaite said.
Of the millions of service members who have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, only about 100 have been affected by these conditions, Postlewaite said. The department vows to give the best care to any service members ill for any cause, he added, including environmental exposures.
Health specialists will examine the service members to find out why they are affected and others are not, Postlewaite said.
“What’s different about these people?” he asked. “[Did they have] more exposure? Pre-existing conditions? Genetic susceptibilities?”
Officials also will ask if their conditions could be the result of combined exposures – dust, smoke and tobacco, for example.
Postlewaite’s organization oversees testing to ensure service members’ health. Deployment operational health surveillance characterizes hazards present in the air, water or soil in deployed settings.
“We have collected almost 20,000 air, water and soil samples throughout [the Central Command area],” Postlewaite said. “They’ve been analyzed for any hazardous materials. We take that we catalogue it and archive it, and it’s available for us to go back to if we need to. That said, the number of hazards we’ve identified in these 20,000 samples is relatively small.”
The group analyzes water for organic chemicals, metals and anything else that may present health hazards, he said. “We do the same thing with the soil – particularly looking for any spills that may have occurred, any contamination from previous operations,” said he added. “For the air, we analyze it for a variety of different things.”
The Army studied air samples from around Iraq and Afghanistan. Its Advanced Particulate Matter Study was published in 2010.
“There were literally thousands of air samples collected for just that study from 15 different locations throughout the theater,” Postlewaite said. “They were analyzed for dozens of different potential air hazards. When all the analysis was done, there were more than 6 million data points that came out of the study.”
The study indicated that the sand and dust present in the theater was “not demonstrably different” form the sand and dust in desert regions of the United States, he said. “The proportions of various types of calcium and various compounds were a bit different, but there was nothing that stood out as a health hazard that affects our people,” Postlewaite said.
The air in cities was affected by smog, and the samples taken at bases were able to measure pollution from burn pits, Postlewaite said. “For those installations that still happened to have burn pits at the time, those air samples tended to indicate the organic material that was burned from the fires,” he said.
The burn pits were a necessity when forces first moved into Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, because accumulated garbage causes public health problems. Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan had an infrastructure — no garbage trucks, no landfills. So commanders had to burn the waste, Postlewaite said.
“At the smallest camps, it could have been a single trench in the ground or a barrel that burned once daily,” he said. As the size of an installation increased, the size of the burn pit increased also. At the largest installations, acres were set aside for waste disposal.
What went into the pits were the same things that go into dumps anywhere in the United States – garbage and refuse from offices and living quarters.
“Early on in the operation, there was also a lot of construction going on, so there may have been a fair amount of wood [and] some plastic materials. We’ve had reports of certain things that we wouldn’t condone burning today that probably were burned,” Postlewaite said. “Since that time, very stringent regulations have been put into place that now severely limit what can be burned in the burn pits and what can’t.”
All those things that could potentially generate a hazardous emission of some sort are now eliminated from the waste stream, he said.
“We’re reasonably certain that for those burn pits that continue to exist based on the materials being burned now, we don’t have nearly the concerns with the health impacts that we had to begin with,” Postlewaite said.
In Iraq, the burn pits were replaced by incinerators. Also, Iraq is developing the infrastructure to handle waste. A plan is in place to close all of the burn pits in Afghanistan by the end of the year, Postlewaite said.
Complaints about respiratory problems from burn pit smoke began about four years ago, he said. The department treated these allegations seriously and began investigating as soon as possible, he said.
“The reports coming out of the vet population covered a wide waterfront – skin, respiratory, cancer autoimmune conditions,” he said. “You would expect with a common exposure to see a common type of illness, and we weren’t seeing that.”
The department did a complete risk assessment following Environmental Protection Agency protocols at the burn pit at Balad Air Base, Iraq. “We looked at that in detail and we could come up with no measureable, anticipated risk based on the exposure to the air sampling that we accomplished for the burn pit smoke samples,” Postlewaite said.
Again, he added, there was nothing out of the ordinary.
Still, DOD will continue to collect medical surveillance data and will continue lab and clinical research on inhaling smoke and dust, Postlewaite said. The department will also continue to reach out to medical experts in and out of government for advice, he added.
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