Dangerous Afghan Dust
Five things every Soldier should know about the dangerous Afghan dust.
By Andrew Tilghman, Army Times, 19 July 2010
Afghanistan is suffering through what natives refer to as the “120 Days of Wind,” a season beginning in late spring when sandstorms form and suffocate the southern part of the country. That’s more troubling than ever before since a recent study found that Afghan dust may be toxic. It’s probably not going to be your biggest health concern if you’re heading downrange sometime soon, but here’s what you need to know about the air you’ll breathe over there.
1. Toxic dust? Afghan dust may cause respiratory problems and even brain damage, according to a Navy study unveiled at a medical conference in June. Trace amounts of metals found in the dust can get into the bloodstream and travel to the brain and other organs.
2. What metals? A close analysis of the Afghan dust found traces of manganese (Mn), a toxic chemical known to cause Parkinson’s-like symptoms. Other metals found in the sand include silicon (Si), iron (Fe), magnesium (Mg), aluminum (Al), and chromium (Cr). The dust samples were taken from Forward Operating Base Salerno near Khost, which was selected because of its relative isolation with no nearby industry that could skew results.
3. Just the beginning? The study was done in response to anecdotal concerns that the dust and dust storms in the Middle East may be harmful. This one involved only cell tissue in Petri dishes. Testing on real animals or people is pending, and the Navy plans to continue examining the potential risks, a Navy official said.
4. Afghanistan is not unique. Dust in Iraq—and even California—also contains trace amounts of certain metals, yet it’s unclear whether the specific metals from Afghanistan pose a greater risk. Other jobs involve risk of metal inhalation, including welding, mining, plating and, in some cases, roadway construction.
Docs say don’t worry. Comdr. Cappy Surette, a spokesman for the Bureau of Navy Medicine and Sugery, downplayed the findings. “There is no definitive basis to say the sand is neurotoxic to people or animals,” he said in an interview. “It is important to note, though, that in a great many cases, preliminary research outcomes do not bear out the earlier findings when the investigation involves replication of exposure in the living intact mammalian animal and human research subject. That said, research will continue until a complete picture is understood.”