THURSDAY, March 31 (HealthDay News) -- While the risks of
gunfire and explosive devices to U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq
are obvious, new research suggests that high levels of air
pollution in that country might pose a threat to their respiratory
Scientists have been collecting air samples in Baghdad since
2008, and they found that the Iraqi air often contains fine
particulate matter made up of many elements, including silica,
sulfates and heavy metals, such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and
mercury. Fine particulate matter is of greater concern than large
particulate matter because these tiny particles can travel deep
into the lungs, where they can cause more damage.
Some air quality readings in Iraq found that the fine
particulate matter was nearly 10 times higher than the levels
generally considered acceptable in the United States.
"There is concern with the amount of the fine particles in the atmosphere that the soldiers, and the Iraqi citizens, are living in," said study co-author Jennifer Bell, a doctoral student in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.
"Fine particulate matter is very, very small. If you think about the size of a hair follicle, these particles are smaller than a hair follicle," said Bell. "The natural defenses, like the hairs in the nose, normally trap coarse particles, but these particles are so small they bypass the body's natural defenses."
What's more, she said, in a place like Iraq, where it's
extremely hot, it can be very difficult to breathe that hot air
through the nose, and many people breathe through their mouth. This
allows fine particles to travel even further, into the deepest part
of the lungs, known as the alveoli.
The alveoli are the area in the lungs that allow oxygen to pass
into the bloodstream. If you've inhaled fine particulate matter
into your alveoli, these particulates can pass through the alveoli
into your blood, according to Dr. Hormoz Ashtyani, director of the
pulmonary division at Hackensack University Medical Center in New
Jersey. Once these particles are in the bloodstream, the immune
system sends out cells to destroy them. But, they just get absorbed
into these cells, impairing their function.
"The [immune system cells] can't rid themselves of the particulate matter and their function suffers. Resistance to infection is reduced," he explained.
These particles are also of concern because they can scar the
lung tissue and affect lung function, said Ashtyani.
He said that for most healthy people, their natural defense
mechanisms will overcome this exposure. Bell agreed that healthy
people can generally overcome this exposure, and said that it's
people who may already have a sensitivity to these fine particles,
such as those with preexisting lung or heart problems, who are most
at risk. However, even some healthy people may be at risk of
developing a chronic cough, she added.
Bell was to present the findings Wednesday at the American
Chemical Society national meeting in Anaheim, Calif.
Bell said that there are two main sources of fine particulate
matter -- nature and human activity. Iraq's environment naturally
has more fine particulate matter because it's desert. "There's
nothing breaking up the wind in the desert. Once the wind goes, it
really starts going," she said, adding that there are many natural
elements contained in the sand, such as silicate minerals,
carbonates, sulfates, oxides and heavy metals.
The other main source of fine particulate matter is human
activity. Activities such as driving kick up a lot of dust, and
gasoline containing lead hasn't yet been banned in Iraq. So, fine
particles may contain additional lead.
As would be expected, fine particulate matter readings were
higher during dust storms in Iraq, which happen about twice a
month, and can cause winds around 60 miles per hour, according to
Bell. The dust storms can last for several days.
Soldiers are given masks to help them breathe easier during
these dust storms. But, Bell noted, soldiers don't always wear the
masks when they should. "A lot of them don't wear them because it's
so hot. It can get up to 130 degrees on some days," she said.
Ashtyani said a mask is the most effective way to protect the
lungs from fine particulate matter, but he understands why soldiers
might not want to wear them all the time. "If physical activity
increases, a mask interferes with air movement and may cause
shortness of breath. Between the heat and the discomfort, soldiers
probably can't perform as much with the mask on as without it," he
One thing that should come out of this study, said Ashtyani, is
a greater awareness of the potential problems returning soldiers
may face, such as a chronic cough. He said that doctors who treat
people who've served in places like Iraq and Afghanistan should be
"sensitive to the subtle, and perhaps not clear-cut, complaints
that these soldiers may have when they come back."
Learn more about the potential health effects of particulate
matter pollution from the
Environmental Protection Agency.
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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