Air pollution is another potentially deadly threat for U.S. soldiers in Iraq

As if U.S. troops serving in Iraq didn’t face enough risk to life and limb already, these servicemen and women are putting their long-term health at risk because the air in Iraq is so polluted.

A study begun in 2008 is finding that much of the air pollution in Iraq is of the most insidious sort – the very small dust particles that can make their way deep into the lungs and stay there. The study’s preliminary findings were presented late Wednesday at the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Anaheim.

Bigger specks of dust – the ones we can actually see – get trapped by cilia, tiny hairs in the nose and respiratory tract. But, says study team member Jennifer Bell, a graduate student in atmospheric chemistry at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, much of the fine particulate matter in Iraqi air is small enough to slip past.

“When we take a breath, they travel into the deepest part of the lung where oxygen exchange takes place,” Bell explained in a news release from the American Chemical Society.


Measurements show that the concentration of fine dust particles in Iraqi air often exceeds the levels deemed safe by the U.S. National Ambient Air Quality Standards; in some cases they were almost 10 times higher. The amount of lead in the dust is also higher than what U.S. air quality standards allow.

Some of the particles are generated by large dust storms, which happen about twice a month. Others come from man-made sources like vehicle exhaust (leaded gasoline is still used in Iraq), factories and trash fires and may contain lead, arsenic, mercury and other heavy metals that could be toxic.

The World Health Organization estimates that air pollution is responsible for about 2 million premature deaths each year. Air pollution increases the risk of respiratory infections, lung cancer and heart disease.

The study is being funded by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory. A summary of the findings is available here.