Officials Examine Respiratory Issues in Theater

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Has the health of servicemembers exposed to burn pit operations in theater been compromised? It is an issue of concern as servicemembers have attributed respiratory and eye symptoms to burn pit smoke.

The Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center, the Naval Health Research Center, and the US Army Public Health Command conducted research to look for associations of illness or other health conditions among deployed servicemember populations who were in locations with burn pits.

Their report, Epidemiological Studies of Health Outcomes Among Troops Deployed to Burn Pit Sites, was released last year. Preliminary findings concluded that no substantial or consistent long-term health effects were found in personnel assigned to locations with burn pits when compared to other deployers who were assigned to locations without burn pits and also to personnel who did not deploy to Afghanistan and Iraq. The report concluded that DoD will continue to examine the possibility that there may be servicemembers who may have developed health problems as a result of exposure to burn pit smoke.

The preliminary report is under review by the Defense Health Board, according to Dr Craig Postlewaite, director of Force Readiness and Health Assurance in DoD’s division of Force Health Protection and Readiness. The board will provide further guidance to DoD on the report and indicate whether it recommends additional studies or modifications to the completed studies to further determine whether there may be long-term health effects associated with exposure to burn pit smoke. The board was also asked how often DoD should repeat the same or similar studies to identify health risks associated with burn pit smoke exposure.

The IoM is also engaged in an 18-month study at the request of VA to examine the risks of inhaling burn pit smoke. Their recommendations may serve as a guide for additional epidemiological studies, according to Postlewaite. “We are interested in their assessment of any risks that we should be aware of regarding the inhalation of burn pit smoke,” said Postlewaite to U.S. Medicine. “The IoM was asked to identify any long-term health effects resulting from exposure to the burn pit smoke in Iraq and Afghanistan. The committee will examine existing literature that has detailed the types of substances burned in the pits and their by-products, and examine the feasibility and design issues for an epidemiologic study of veterans exposed to the Balad burn pit.”

The Pulmonary Health Research Working Group was established and charged with identifying data gaps or threats related to respiratory health risks for servicemembers in Southwest Asia, among other tasks.

The group held its first meeting in June 2010 and will formulate a number of recommendations for research, clinical evaluation, and subsequent policy development. The working group is considering any type of pulmonary illness that can be linked with deployment, including but not be limited to asthma, bronchitis, constrictive bronchiolitis, as well as a wide variety of pulmonary symptoms such as any difficulty breathing (dyspnea) or persistent coughs.

Postlewaite said the 42 burn pits in Iraq, all of which were at locations with 100 or more personnel, were closed by the end of December. A plan is in place to replace many burn pit locations in Afghanistan with incinerators. There are currently 31 incinerators that are operational with 141 programmed for installation during 2011.

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