Military personnel and contractors stationed in Iraq risk not only enemy gunfire, suicide bombers, and roadside bombs, but the very air they breathe often is polluted with dust and other particles of a size and composition that could pose immediate and long-term health threats–the same type of threat that civilians face who live too near pollution spewing highways and power stations. Personnel in Iraq often breathe air polluted with the most worrisome kind of dust particles: fine particles, or "particulate matter," that lodge deep inside the lungs.

Researcher Jennifer M. Bell says, "Our preliminary results show that the fine particulate matter concentrations frequently exceed military exposure guidelines," and some of the ingredients in that dust, such as lead, "exceed US ambient air quality standards designed to protect human health." In some instances, military personnel breathe in fine particulates at levels almost 10 times higher than the desirable levels in US National Ambient Air Quality Standards. It’s the fine particles that are the problem. According to Bell, "Coarse particles are large enough to get trapped in the hair-like fibers that line the nasal passages and the trachea preventing them from entering the lungs. Fine and ultra fine particles are so small that they bypass the body’s natural defenses. When we take a breath, they travel into the deepest part of the lung where oxygen exchange takes place."

In other words, our troops may avoid getting shot or having their legs blown off, but when they come home, they’re candidates for serious heart and lung disease. Iraq has about two major dust storms a month, with the typical event involving dust and sand whipped up and driven across the landscape by winds that reach 60 miles per hour. The terrible storms can last for days, with dust seeping through tightly sealed doors and windows and into vehicles and buildings. Those particles contain natural silicates, sulfates, and other minerals that can cause lung damage. But soldiers will face some of the same problems when they get back home. Bell says, "We are especially concerned about fine airborne particles that originate from motor vehicles, factories, open burning of trash in pits, and other sources."

While the US is lagging behind in air pollution controls, Iraq does not enforce ANY, and cars there burn the leaded gasoline was phased out in the United States in the mid-1990s. Those particulates contain potentially toxic heavy metals like lead, arsenic, mercury, and cadmium. Some of the particulates start out as aerosols, droplets of liquid from automobile tailpipes, for instance. The liquid evaporates, leaving invisible particles of lead and other material that can float for days in the air.

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