What to Know About Sand and Dust Exposure in Veterans

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on May 23, 2022

Sand and dust exposure is a common problem among veterans who've been deployed to areas with dusty climates like Afghanistan, the Gulf, and Iraq. In such areas, these veterans may become frequently exposed to various sources of dust and sand including dust storms, waste burning, chemical exposure, and vehicle exhaust.

Exposure to particulate matter is a serious health concern for veterans and civilians alike. These tiny particles can get lodged deep in your lungs and cause many respiratory issues. Veterans experiencing particulate matter health effects may be eligible for assistance through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs — or the VA.

What Environmental Hazards Are Soldiers Exposed to?

Soldiers deployed to combat zones often confront many environmental hazards — from intense heat and high winds to poisonous gases and deadly chemical weapons. One of the most common health risks deployed service members encounter is exposure to particulates, which are small pieces of solid matter that can enter their lungs and cause various health problems. These particulates can come in many forms, including sand, dust, acids, metals, and chemicals.

Smaller particulates, like airborne dust particles, can be inhaled deep into the lungs, becoming trapped there and causing damage to the surrounding tissue. This is because these particles are small enough to bypass the body's natural defenses effectively.

On the other hand, larger particulates, like grains of sand, tend to get caught in hair-like projections called cilia lining the airways. As a result, these particles get coughed up or sneezed right out of the body before they have a chance to cause any damage. 

Besides particulate size, factors like the particulate concentration and chemical makeup, exposure duration, and your health determine how negatively particulate exposure will affect you.

The primary source of dust exposure for veterans is dust blown while driving motor vehicles as well as dust storms.

The effects of burning hazardous waste can vary depending on the length of exposure and the kind of waste that was burned. Trash and waste burn pits are common in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the southwest Asia areas. Particulate matter exposure is common in areas with burn pits and can cause different health effects.

Short-term exposure to smoke from burning hazardous waste can lead to symptoms, like eye, nose, and throat irritation. Specifically, this irritation is caused by toxins and chemicals found in smoke, which enter your lungs over time and lead to various health issues over time. Long-term exposure to these harmful substances may increase the risk for various kinds of cancer and serious health problems.

How Do Sand and Dust Storms Affect Human Health?

Sand and dust storms are a common complaint of particulate matter exposure in veterans while deployed. Dust from these storms can stay in the air for a few hours to several days. Giant dust storms are called a haboob, and it sends both organic and inorganic particles into the air.

In general, sand and dust don't break down in your lungs — instead, they scar and damage the tissue there. This makes breathing very difficult over time. Repeated and frequent exposure to breathing dust and sand particles inflames your lungs such that you develop a debilitating lung disease called silicosis

Dust storms can have severe negative effects on human health. Fine dust particles can carry bacteria, fungi, viruses, and pollutants that can cause damage to the lungs. Exposure to fine dust particles has been linked to lung-related issues, including coughing, wheezing, lower respiratory tract infection, asthma, lung fibrosis, interstitial lung disease, and cardiovascular diseases.

Exposure to airborne hazards while deployed can be a serious concern for many military service members. This is because, besides irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat, sand and dust exposure can cause coughs, shortness of breath, runny nose, and flu-like symptoms. 

Veterans who develop asthma, rhinitis, or sinusitis due to short-term sand and dust exposure can recover with proper treatment once the exposure ends. However, if you're a veteran who's had lasting or ongoing symptoms for a long time, you may be eligible for government-aided assistance and benefits. 

What Are the Long-Term Effects of Dust?

Exposure to sand and dust particles can have severe long-term health effects, especially if the exposure happens during deployment. Veterans deployed in areas with high levels of particulate matter may experience respiratory problems, including symptoms like wheezing, coughing, and difficulty in breathing after deployment. Studies have shown that respiratory systems were common among deployed veterans. 

Deployed veterans are more likely to develop new-onset asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) than those not deployed. That is, exposure to sand and dust is a possible risk factor for those respiratory conditions.

Up to 70% of respiratory illnesses in veterans are reported during and after sand and dust exposure. Deployed veterans should therefore be aware of the potential risks and seek medical attention if they experience any respiratory symptoms.

Veterans with particulate matter exposure within two miles of a burn pit can have increased risks of emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and COPD. Often, veterans report shortness of breath and decreased exercise tolerance after particulate matter exposure. Their lung biopsies may show swelling in the small airway branches of the lungs, which is a sign of bronchiolitis

People regularly exposed to sand and dust are at a greater risk of serious health conditions. For example, people who work in industries that involve heavy exposure to these particles are much more likely to develop lung cancer or even die. 

What Is the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry?

The VA created the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry to assist veterans who may be exposed to particulate matter in desert climates. After 9/11, the VA added sand and dust exposure to the registry to assist in the health effects of prolonged exposure. 

Here's a list of locations that qualify for the registry:

  • Afghanistan
  • Bahrain
  • Djibouti
  • Gulf of Aden
  • Gulf of Oman
  • Iraq
  • Kuwait
  • Oman
  • Qatar
  • Saudi Arabia
  • United Arab Emirates
  • Waters of the Arabian Sea
  • Persian Gulf
  • Red Sea

Veterans deployed to areas where they may have been exposed to particulate matter are eligible to participate in medical evaluations through the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit registry. Your eligibility will depend on information from the Department of Defense and deployment. Participation in the registry doesn't affect your current VA benefits or coverage. Registering will help researchers better understand the health effects of particulate matter exposure and develop ways to prevent or treat related health conditions.

Show Sources

American Thoracic Society: “Sand and Dust Storms: Acute Exposure and Threats to Respiratory Health.”
Center of Disease Control: “Industrial Sand Workers.” “Airborne Hazards and Open Pit Registry,” “Particulate Matter (PM) Air Pollution Exposures During Military Deployments.”
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: “War Related Illness and Injury Study Center,” “Sand, Dust and Particulates,” “Airborne Hazards Concerns: Information for Veterans.”

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