Soldiers have reason to breathe easy

By Staff Sgt. Joy Pariante

13th Public Affairs Detachment

Personal health is always a concern while deployed. One major concern is the quality of air we're breathing everyday, everywhere we go. Servicemembers stationed around Iraq can breathe a little easier thanks to vigilant testing and monitoring of air quality standards by Multi-National Corps - Iraq's surgeon's office.

Testing is performed on a routine basis to measure the levels of particulates, metals, volatiles, semi-volatiles and other chemical contaminants in the local air, said Maj. Tara L. Hall, chief, Preventive Medicine, MNC-I. Air samples are taken around the country and sent back to the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventative Medicine for analysis. Not only does the USACHPPM send back the results of the testing, but they include a risk assessment based on how the personnel are exposed to the air and the duration of the exposure, Hall explained.

"From a health perspective, there is currently no data to suggest that a long term or short term health risk exists from poor air quality," Hall said. If anything, Iraq tends to have a higher particulate contaminant load due to the large amounts of airborne dust and sand present, Hall added.

Much of the speculation about air quality in Iraq is due to perception, Hall said. "Burn pits are the primary method of trash disposal in Iraq," she explained. Most forward operating bases begin their trash control efforts by using burn pits. However, as the FOB develops, so does the waste management. "As the FOB matures, it moves to better long term solutions for dealing with trash in a way that meets our standards," Hall said. This means closed burning practices are used, including incinerators.

The health threat from burn pits has been assessed from the air sampling that has been conducted and is considered to be low and indicates no signs of short term or long term health concerns, Hall said. "Additional particulate load can come from smoke," she explained. The smoke acts as an irritant and may cause coughing or sneezing, Hall said.

"The body has tremendous mechanisms to clear itself of particulate contaminants," she explained. These defenses include mucus and cilia, which trap contaminants and purge them from the body, and the lungs' cough reflex is also helpful in removing particulates.

Many servicemembers have requested to wear masks to protect themselves from exposure, an act which Hall said may cause more harm than good. Unless the mask is properly rated and fit tested, it offers little to no protection. It also brings health risks such as making breathing more difficult and overheating.

Soldiers can still take a deep breath and feel safe, Hall assures. "Preventive medicine assets are working very hard to monitor exposure and institute controls for the protection of the soldiers," Hall said. She added, however, if you are showing any type of symptoms of or have concerns about exposure related risks, see your medical care provider immediately.