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Lung ailments emerge after service in Iraq

A handout photo of Bill McKenna, who died

A handout photo of Bill McKenna, who died after returning from his second tour in Iraq, was on display outside the hall from where a symposium that featured national experts with evidence that troops who have been to Iraq are suffering elevated incidents of lung disease held at Stony Brook University, in Stony Brook. (Feb. 13, 2012) Credit: Newsday/Ed Betz

For Dina McKenna, Christmas 2009 was a happy time. Her husband, who had twice been deployed in Iraq during earlier holiday seasons, was at home for the holidays.

But the good times didn't last.

"Christmas Day, 2009, we were walking together by the river in Tampa," said McKenna, of Lindenhurst. "Two days later, he collapsed."

Monday, McKenna shared her husband's story at a Stony Brook University symposium that explored the possibility that military service in Iraq and Afghanistan has led to increased lung ailments among troops who have served there.

The daylong symposium drew medical experts from across the country.

The symposium was organized by Dr. Anthony Szema, a Stony Brook pulmonary physician who has studied the lung function of soldiers returning from Iraq.

Szema pointed to research done at Stony Brook and elsewhere that suggests that dust from soil in Iraq can be particularly injurious when it is breathed. The superheated dust is inhaled deep into the lungs and was found to hide dangerous microbes or embedded toxic chemicals. Szema and others said the military's former practice of burning trash in open "burn pits" has also been implicated.

In a study Szema published in the September issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, area soldiers who served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan were found to be about seven times more likely to display signs of damaged lungs than enlistees who never served there.

The study was based on a review of the medical records of 7,151 patients at the Northport VA Medical Center who served in an active-duty status between 2004 and 2010.

"We know there is a link between that environment and lung injury," said Szema.

Veronique Hauschild, of the Army's Public Health Command, told attendees at the symposium that the Army is taking the possible threat seriously. She said the Pentagon is organizing its own studies of possible links between wartime service and lung ailments. "I don't want to say there's not a problem, because I believe there is," Hauschild said. "I just don't think it has been adequately defined."

Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), who addressed the symposium, said he is convinced that the Pentagon is taking the issue more seriously than it had in the past.

Bishop said the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs granted McKenna's husband, Sgt. Bill McKenna, 41, a 100 percent disability after determining his illness was related to his exposure to burn pit fumes at Balad Air Base, Iraq. He died in December 2010, his body riddled with cancer.

The 25,000 U.S. troops who were stationed at the base were routinely exposed to fumes from the 200 tons of spent auto parts, medical waste, plastics and other trash that were burned at Balad daily, before legislation initiated by Bishop curtailed open-air burning at military bases, officials have said."The DOD is beginning to come to the table," said Bishop. "And that is somewhat of an evolution from just a few years ago."

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