Battlefield pollution potentially fatal

American army researchers have concluded that proximity to battlefield explosions or a bomb detonation can be bad for your health - even if you survive the blast.

Scientists from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) have been investigating the health impacts of brief exposure to high concentrations of nitrogen dioxide.

Exposure to the gas at low and moderate levels is an unavoidable risk in most industrialised cities as it forms part of the cocktail of pollutants in the exhaust fumes of vehicles.

As might be expected, most of the research into the health effects has been focused in this area and has shown that lung damage can occur following prolonged exposure.

But burning buildings and vehicles, military munitions and bomb explosions can release huge amounts of the gas, sending concentrations sky high in a limited area for the brief period before it can disperse.

The team from WRAIR have been studying the health effects of these brief, extreme exposures and have concluded that they can cause serious and lasting damage to the lungs.

In the USA, regulations set the limit for workplace exposure at 5 parts per million.

The army scientists exposed rats to much higher concentrations ranging from 100ppm to 2,000ppm for five minutes then examined their lungs for signs of damage.

According to the lead researcher, Dr Zengfa Gu, ‘extreme changes’ were observed even at the lower exposures suggesting that active troops, civilians in war zones and those caught up in terrorist attacks are at risk of long term damage to their health even if they survive the event that led to the pollution.

Amongst the rats exposed to the gas a number of health problems were observed – breathing rate and depth were sharply inhibited, acute and delayed lung damage occurred and in some cases there was a rapid onset of lung oedema – swelling caused by accumulation of fluid.

Mr Gu concluded that battlefield troops could easily find themselves exposed to these concentrations of the gas, as could civilians caught in a terrorist bombing attack or a less sinister building fire for more than a few minutes.

Sam Bond

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