DoD Dodges Deadly Dust Data

The military could have had the answer to Persian Gulf syndrome for years and did nothing about it, as tens of thousands more veterans return from war in the region, possibly suffering from the same exposures and symptoms.

Simply put: it’s in the dust.

A growing body of evidence indicates that U.S soldiers have been exposed to a highly toxic “stew” of microscopic particles—including 37 metals and 147 different kinds of bacteria, as well as disease-carrying fungi—found uniquely in the Iraqi dust.

This breakthrough could indicate that the exposure and impact could be far more sweeping than previous explanations for Persian Gulf Syndrome after the 1991 war, and for the now-documented increase of respiratory problems among veterans today. Invariably, critics have blamed the use of depleted uranium, the widespread and unregulated use of burn pits on forward operating bases, even the oil fires early in the war, and the burning of a sulfur plant in Mosul in the 2003.

But U.S Navy medical researcher Capt. Mark Lyles, who first discovered the toxic dust through sampling in Kuwait and Iraq in 2004, says the answer may be much more complicated and could reach back millions of years—in other words, much of the toxicity could be naturally occurring, and is unique to the soil in the region. Near-constant conflict—the pounding of the earth through bombs and artillery vehicles driving over the desert since the Iran-Iraq War began in 1980—has accelerated the distribution of this noxious threat, Lyles added, “creating multiple dust points of exposure.”

“I kind of put it all together and asked, what is the overall health risk being exposed to this, and frankly, I’ve yet to get an answer,” he told me in a recent exchange. “There are a lot of people who say, yes, individuals have been exposed to dust and wow, it’s a ridiculously excessive amount of dust. Next, what is in the dust? Bacteria and a lot of elements and a lot of metals—a lot of heavy metals. What does it mean? I don’t know—I’m just reporting what I found.”

What he does offer is a warning. “I believe that there is short-term and long-term potential health risk for this kind of exposure,” said Lyles.

Incidentally, a week after Lyles’ findings were given their first mainstream breakthrough in a USA Today report by longtime military writer Kelly Kennedy on May 12, a team of scientists under the authority of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northport, N.Y., said veterans who had been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan were seven times more likely to suffer from what they called “lung injury,” or respiratory-related illness, compared to their cohorts who had been deployed elsewhere.

“Not only do soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan suffer serious respiratory problems at a rate seven times that of soldiers deployed elsewhere, but the respiratory issues they present with show a unique pattern of fixed obstruction in half of cases, while most of the rest are clinically reversible new-onset asthma, in addition to the rare interstitial lung disease called non-specific interstitial pneumonitis associated with inhalation of titanium and iron,” said Anthony Szema, a professor of medicine and surgery at the State University of New York at Stony Brook School of Medicine, who presented the findings at a conference last week.

The study, which surveyed 7,000 veterans who served between 2004 and 2007, is reportedly the latest and biggest of its kind. The results jibe with a smaller-scale study Szema did a year ago, and with work being done with veterans by Dr. Robert Miller, associate professor of Allergy, Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Of course, the Department of Defense, which has been stark in its insistence that there is no proven connection between the illnesses and the war, has now admitted through gritted teeth that there might be something going on. Craig Postlewaite, director of Force Readiness and Health Assurance office, told The Wall Street Journal last week that there seemed to be “a modest increase in the incidence of respiratory symptoms in those individuals who have returned from deployment to Southwest Asia.”

As for Lyles’ examination of the dust as a major contributing factor to the health issues among Iraq veterans, Postlewaite was even more dismissive. “All soil, no matter where it is found, has germs present, so this finding is not unusual,” he told USA Today. “We have closely examined our medical surveillance data for those personnel who have deployed—some multiple times—and we have not been able to identify any increased disease that could be associated with the germs that were identified in the soil.”

He also said military found the dust “is not noticeably different from samples collected in the Sahara Desert and desert regions in the U.S and Chine,” to which Lyles had a hearty laugh.

“They have no clue—it’s like different wines in different regions. Not only is it different in what it constitutes, but it’s different in the biology and microbiology and the particles. Every aspect is different.”

What’s in the Dust?

Dr. Lyles, now chair of the Health and Security Studies at the U.S Naval War College, has been in the Navy since 1983. He began his examination of the dust in 2003 while serving as a research scientist at the U.S Naval Institute for Dental and Biomedical Research. Since then, he’s headed the Department of Applied Laboratory Sciences at the institute, and has served as Deputy Director of Future Plans & Strategies for Emerging Science & Technology with the U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.

Today, however, he insists his findings and insights are his own and do not represent the U.S Navy, the Naval War College or the Department of Defense.

Lyles said he and his team of fellow researchers found fine particulate matter– that is, dangerously microscopic particles of matter suspended in the dust—exhibiting rare concentrations of the aforementioned bacteria and metals, including aluminum, lead, manganese and chromium, far greater than any acceptable health levels here in the U.S. For example, he said the average American home has particulate matter of 1 microgram or less per cubic meter. The worst day in Iraq recorded by the team seven years ago measured an average of 2,000 micrograms per cubic meter during a minor dust storm. Major dust storms would peg their instrument at 9,999 micrograms per cubic meter—the highest it would go.

“It’s like breathing in peanut butter,” said Lyles, who is a doctor of dental medicine and has a PhD in cellular and structural biology. “You couldn’t re-create that in your house if you had to.”

But what this could mean is that two generations of soldiers had no choice but to breathe in this stuff over long periods of deployment, said Lyles.

Just as scary, according to Lyles’ research, the team found at total of 147 different “microbial isolates” or bacteria, 25 percent of which were human pathogens, including several that “were found to have antibiotic resistance” living in the dust. Some were picked up in all the samples, others were found in specific sample sites. Identifiable pathogens included neusseria meningiditis, which can cause meningitis, and Cryptococcus albidus, which causes cystic fibrosis. Others are known for causing gastro-enteritis, septicemia, food poisoning and various other infections.

According to the USA Today report, two service members died and 18 others were taken ill by a rare infection—eosinophilic pneumonia—in Iraq in 2003. “Researchers theorized that the bacteria entered through troops’ lungs through the dust or through bacteria packed up from the ground from tobacco in foreign cigarettes,” wrote Kennedy. In a 2008 article published in The Scientist, writer Brendan Borell, said it was closer to 36 service members who had taken ill with the deadly flu, and added that Army doctors might have been battling another pathogen getting into their equipment through the dust:

The dastardly dust has also found its way into medical and dental equipment at frontline treatment facilities, which may be one reason why, since the start of the war, hundreds of wounded soldiers have had their limbs and lives threatened by “Iraqibacter,” the antibiotic-resistant Acinetobacter baumannii, following injuries.

In 2005, Lyles said he prepared a report based on his 2004 findings for the office of the Navy Surgeon General. He recommended that N95 dust protection masks be issued upon request, and that convoys be protected from dust exposure. He never knew what came of his recommendations. “Sometimes you come up with a lot of things and they get filed away,” Lyles told Borell in 2008. “It is a war zone.”

More recently, he told me, “a dust nuisance mask would have reduced the exposure 99 percent. Especially people in convoys or laying on the ground… that’s what we’re talking about, are they still not taking the proper steps in acting on this?”

We’ve written quite extensively in this space about the illnesses that veterans have contended with since the first Gulf War. Some have been pretty bad, like Edward Adams, now 34, who in 2009 was home from the war in Iraq suffering from countless holes or “cysts” riddling the tissue around his lungs. His abdominal aorta had mysteriously shrunk half its size.

Doctors attending Adams at the Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii were the first in the country to say that his condition might have had something to do with the fumes he had been breathing in from the burn pit at Camp Speicher in Iraq. The DoD has long denied a connection between veterans’ illness and the pits, which are massive smoking dumping grounds where everything—from batteries and rubber to medical waste and vehicle parts—are burned all together 24/7.

Only recently and due to congressional pressure, have the pits been reduced in use and cleaner-burning incinerators brought in to dispose of garbage on bases. Critics, including the Government Accountability Office, say the response is still not fast enough and that tens of thousands of service members and contractors were exposed to the toxic plumes in the years the government already new the pits were a hazard.

But Lyles’ research takes the mystery much further. He does not deny that burn pits may have contributed to the toxicity of the dust. However, he contends that that it is one factor in an emerging picture of how dangerous environmental conditions are for foreign troops there. “A small fraction of troops were exposed to the burn pits but everyone who was deployed there was exposed to the dust,” he charges.

He is not quick to blame war on the dangerous make-up of the dust, explaining that many of the elements were present in a prehistoric lake or sea that once existed in that region of Iraq and Kuwait. The water body eventually evaporated and metals settled into the clays and silts of the ancient bed as it was subsumed by the earth. While mountain formations have gradually brought these things back up to the surface, Lyles admits that endless war, too, has pounded the landscape and broken through the top layer of the earth in many places, kicking the toxic dust around.

Top scientists are concurring with Lyles that the dust is problematic. Catherine Cahill, a professor at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, told USA Today that she started taking her own samples for the Army Research Lab in Baghdad in 2008. “I’ve done sampling since 1986, I’ve never seen anything that bad—not even in China,” she said, referring to that country’s infamous pollution. She said her research mirrors Lyles’ data.

“Mark’s theory makes perfect sense,” she said, adding that she would expect “chronic coughs, asthma, respiratory disease in the short–term; and (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart problems and hypertension long-term” from the inhaling particulate matter at such levels.

What Does This Mean?

Lyles told USA Today that his findings could provide “the smoking gun” for unexplained illnesses among veterans dating back to the 1991 war. Reading about this new theory, veteran Sgt. Mike Maynard, retired, who has lost most of the use of his legs since returning from Iraq in 2006, became excited.

“I almost yelled ‘Eureka’ out loud,” he said in an email exchange with Antiwar. “It seemed the researchers were looking at my medical records when they were discussing the effects of the dust on service members. I was thinking Finally!!!! Here’s proof positive that what we’ve been suffering is a direct result of our service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then I read further about DoDs reaction and became discouraged all over again. It seems that no matter what the evidence says, where it points, that DoD will obfuscate and dismiss the results as inconclusive.”

This could come as no surprise. When veterans from the first Gulf War began complaining about birth defects, cancers and Lou Gherig’s disease, the Pentagon denied it was war-related. When evidence began mounting 15 years later about the use of burn pits, they denied the health affects on veterans, too. But instead of regulating the burn pits sooner, when the first indications of their dangers were coming in, or perhaps taking up Lyles’ earlier recommendations for masks to defend soldiers from the most harmful effects of the dust, they chose CYA over ASAP.

While Lyles’ “smoking gun” may have strong indications for what is happening in Iraq, it doesn’t readily explain the similar health problems plaguing the Afghanistan veterans. Afghanistan has its share of dust storms, indicating that the problems maybe more related to war pollution than naturally-occurring dangers. Lyles’ is hoping to pursue further testing of “hot spots” in Afghanistan, and according to reports, the Navy is already examining the toxicity of the sand in Afghanistan.

For countless individuals who’ve served overseas, the prospect of solving the mystery now is cold comfort, seeing that, as Lyles suggested, a 15-cent mask could have prevented the health problems they are living with today. But it would be the first step towards recognizing their illnesses as service connected—which we know, based on history, the DoD is always stubbornly resistant to do. Of course there is a tremendous cost to doing that—according to Kennedy’s report, the military has already seen a 47 percent rise in the rate of respiratory problems among active-duty service members, and a 251 percent increase in neurological disorders. More than 2.2 million Americans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, with more than 1.3 million now eligible for VA health care. Over 650,000 of them have sought care under the VA.

Tens of thousands of contractors exposed to the same conditions have rotated in and out of the theater just the same.

How many sick people will there be when it’s finally over? Better yet, are these wars worth it? Getting wise to the cause of these illnesses is one thing, demanding the government stop treating American men and women like replaceable fodder is another. Especially when we can no longer afford the consequences.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.