By Peter S. Gaytan
When many soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan developed breathing problems and other diseases, doctors searched for the cause. One theory was that the illnesses were a result of the pollution created by “burn pits,” used by the armed forces to dispose of all kinds of waste. But a new report by the Institute of Medicine found that “shortcomings in research and gaps in evidence” preclude a definitive conclusion that “burn pits” in the war zones are the cause of long-term health problems.
In addition, while not ruling out smoke from “burn pits” as a contributory factor, the Institute found that “high particulate matter in the air” could be a greater danger. These particulates include windblown dust, carbon and metals from vehicle emissions, and industrial activities. The report called for a long-term study of the effect of pollution and dust on the development of illnesses and lung injuries.
This is what we need to remember. When we send our troops off to war, it’s not just bullets and bombs that can cause irreparable harm. We learned that tragic lesson from the lifelong effect of Agent Orange on our Vietnam veterans. Sometimes the damage is clear. The bullet fragments are retrievable. But sometimes the harm is less obvious or doesn’t show up immediately. Our medical community has to be on alert for problems that emerge, sometimes long after the servicemember returns home. And sometimes, like with post-traumatic stress disorder, or other mental illnesses, there are no visible scars, but the damage is real and must be treated.
We owe it to our veterans to make sure that they receive the medical care they need, and that there is on-going research on the illnesses that they develop as a result of serving their country.
To read the full report of Long-Term Health Consequences of Exposure to Burn Pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, go to: http://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=13209
Peter S. Gaytan is the author of For Service To Your Country – Updated Edition: The Essential Guide to Getting the Veterans’ Benefits You’ve Earned (Citadel, 2011), available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other booksellers. He has served as an advocate in securing and protecting the earned benefits of America’s veterans for more than a decade. Gaytan is the Executive Director of the American Legion, the largest veterans service organization in America.
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