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Burn pit study inconclusive on health effects

WASHINGTON — Researchers studying troops’ respiratory problems released findings Monday that suggested poor air quality in Iraq and Afghanistan may be a bigger threat to servicemembers’ long-term health than exposure to toxic smoke from burn pits. But they caution that their work still leaves many questions unanswered.

The report, requested by the Department of Veterans Affairs and conducted by the Institute of Medicine, found that particulate matter in the air around the infamous Joint Base Balad burn pit at the height of the Iraq War included dangerous particulate matter that could cause long-term respiratory illnesses.

But the researchers said that likely came from background sources – “windblown dust combined with elemental carbon and metals that arise from transportation and industrial activities” – and not the burn pit’s toxic smoke. With that factored in, the study found no additional threat from the plastic, metal and other waste being burned in the waste fires.

However, study authors were quick to point out that those conclusions aren’t meant to prove that working and living around burn pits was safe. Researchers complained that air-quality monitoring data supplied by the Defense Department was limited in usefulness, and only gave a partial picture of what chemicals troops may have been exposed to.

The authors recommend a follow-up study of the health records of troops stationed at Balad, both before and after the burn pit was phased out in 2009, to better determine what long-term risks they face.

Earlier this month, a study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine suggested that defense and VA researchers begin using the term “Iraq/Afghanistan War Lung Injury” for the high rates of respiratory illnesses among returning troops. But that research also didn’t isolate whether the problem was from the frequent use of burn pits or other environmental problems in the war zone.

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