Abnormal Lung Function in Recent Veterans Raises Respiratory Disease Risks

By Brenda L. Mooney

SAN DIEGO ─ Veterans returning from Iraq/Afghanistan and the Gulf War with pulmonary function abnormalities have a significantly greater risk of developing chronic respiratory disease years later, according to a new study presented at the 2014 American Thoracic Society International Conference in San Diego.1

“Previous studies of Gulf War and Iraq/Afghanistan veterans have found persistent respiratory symptoms decades after their deployment but have not always detected clinically significant pulmonary abnormalities,” said lead author Michael Falvo, PhD, a research physiologist at the VA’s War Related Illness and Injury Study Center. “In our study, however, we found evidence of small airway obstruction and other pulmonary abnormalities in many deployed veterans.”

Members of the 165th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion wear bandanas and googles to protect themselves during a dust storm outside of Camp Buehring, Kuwait, in 2008, prior to reaching their final destination at Camp Taji, Iraq. Dust is one of the environmental exposures implicated in increased lung disease in returning veterans. Photo by Sgt. Aaron Leblanc

Members of the 165th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion wear bandanas and googles to protect themselves during a dust storm outside of Camp Buehring, Kuwait, in 2008, prior to reaching their final destination at Camp Taji, Iraq. Dust is one of the environmental exposures implicated in increased lung disease in returning veterans. Photo by Sgt. Aaron Leblanc

Asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other respiratory issues can stem from small airway obstruction.

The study was a departure from previous research in both U.S. and Australian 1991 Gulf War veterans which observed no clinically significant pulmonary abnormalities in deployed veterans despite the presence of symptoms that persist even 20 years later.

Increased respiratory symptom reporting up to 10 years post-deployment also has been an issue among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans (IAV), leading researchers to compare patterns of pulmonary function abnormalities in Gulf War and IAV veterans evaluated at a post-deployment tertiary-care clinic in comparison to a previously published population-based sample of Gulf War veterans evaluated 10 years post-deployment.

The earlier study found identical pulmonary function test results among deployed and nondeployed Gulf War veterans.2

“Our findings did not confirm the hypothesis that deployment to the Gulf War in 1990-91 resulted in increased prevalence of clinically significant pulmonary abnormalities 10 years later, wrote the authors led by Joel B. Karlinsky, MD, of the Boston VAMC and Boston University.

For the recently presented retrospective study, researchers tracked 63 Gulf War veterans approximately 20 years post-deployment and 70 Iraq/Afghanistan veterans about 10 years post-deployment. Study subjects were classified as follows: 1) Normal Pulmonary Function (NPF); 2) Non-Reversible Airway Obstruction (NRAO); 3) Reversible Airway Obstruction (RAO); 4) Restrictive Lung Physiology (RLP); and 5) Small Airway Obstruction (SAO). Categories and prediction equations from the Karlinsky study were used for consistency.

With pulmonary function abnormalities assessed using spirometry, the newer study found that small airway obstruction was five times greater — 38% vs. 7% — and the rate of restrictive lung physiology was twice as much — 24% vs. 12% — among Gulf War veterans compared with a reference group from an earlier population-based sample of Gulf War veterans evaluated 10 years post-deployment. In the Iraq/Afghanistan veterans, meanwhile, the rate of small airway obstruction was also five times greater, 31% vs. 7%, but rates of nonreversible airway obstruction were significantly lower in the study groups than in the reference sample.

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  1. Lorrie RN says:

    My husband returned 7 years ago from Army combat duty in Iraq.(he also served in the early Gulf war, Navy) Within one year post-deployment, he was unable to climb a flight of stairs. Dr’s were unable to explain severe shortness of breath. He was inappropriately diagnosed him with anxiety. 2 years later he was diagnosed with severe pulmonary arterial hypertension, a progressive debilitating lung disease. He continues to be denied service connection, as the condition could not be proven related to environmental considerations.Keeping in mind he was in perfect health before deployment.We now know that every soldier who served in the Middle East has had a respiratory exposure. It is a matter of time before symptoms manifest. In the last two years, a multitude of scientific research literature has been produced by the experts. What I would like to know is why, why, why are we still attempting to prove respiratory conditions are service connected? Our claim has been sitting in appeals for 5 years, while a veteran is dying of lung disease which has now affected cardiac function.The life expectancy for this condition is 5 years, even with medications, (that we have had to fight the VA to pay for). While society wonders why the suicide rate among veterans is so high, the federal government knows exactly why. What is this medical reasearch worth? Nothing

    • janet radtke RN says:

      I was a flight nurse on a C130 for 6 months in Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Storm. I have been a non smoker. I developed SOB last year and have been misdiagnosed since then with asthma. Just recently after no improvement with inhalers and medication, more testing was done and my VA pulmonologist dx me with Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension and referred me to a pulmonologist that strictly deals with this disease as one of 9 (only) medical centers that treat patients with this disease. I was denied disability and am now refiling for reconsideration. I am hopeful that at least I would be able to get an exam by a VA provider for consideration under the Gulf War Illness diagnoses.

  2. Annie K says:

    I don’t think the government wants to admit the dangers many are in now. How do they justify testing 10 people? This ” Gulf War Illness” is real and the Government needs to start taking care of our Vets that are suffering from it.
    Maybe they need to rob a bank, go to jail then they will get Medical attention they need.
    What a sad situation they are in. 🙁

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