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What to Know About Sulfur Dioxide Exposure In Veterans

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on June 08, 2022

Sulfur dioxide is a dangerous chemical that you could encounter in a gas or liquid form. It’s dangerous to touch and inhale, but some veterans may have encountered this compound while they were serving in the military. 

You can file a claim for disability compensation with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) if you were exposed during your military service and it negatively impacted your health. 

What Is Sulfur Dioxide?

Sulfur dioxide is a chemical compound that goes by a number of names. Alternative names for the chemical include: 

  • Sulfur oxide
  • Sulfurous acid anhydride
  • Sulfurous anhydride
  • Sulfurous oxide

The chemical is a gas at room temperature, but it’s often stored as a liquid in pressurized containers. The gas has a pungent odor and other irritating properties that make it easy to detect if it’s present in harmful amounts. 

It’s non-flammable as a gas, but a sulfur fire could start if a compressed tank is exposed to extreme heat — like from a fire. 

Sulfur dioxide is heavier than air when it's a gas and heavier than water in liquid form.   

What Is Sulfur Dioxide Used For?

Sulfur dioxide has a number of uses in both industry and agriculture. It’s even used in very small quantities as a food preservative. The majority of the gas comes from burning fossil fuels, though, so it’s also a major component of air pollution. 

Who Could Be Exposed to Sulfur Dioxide?

You could be exposed to sulfur dioxide if there are any accidents while transporting the material. You could also be exposed if you’re near fossil fuel fires. You’ll most likely know that you’ve been exposed and will want to seek immediate medical attention. 

The small amounts that are sometimes used to preserve food shouldn’t cause any negative reactions, but there’s a slight chance that consuming some of the chemical could cause an asthma attack in people who have asthma and are sensitive to sulfur.

The largest recent military exposure took place in 2003 when a fire began at the Mishraq State Sulfur Mine Plant near Mosul, Iraq. This fire burned for almost an entire month. Levels of sulfur dioxide in the air near the fire were high enough to be immediately dangerous to human health. 

The amount of exposure varied depending on time and location throughout the month. The military personnel who received the worst exposures were mostly firefighters from various battalions in the 101st Airborne division. 

A group of these soldiers from Fort Campbell, Kentucky were evaluated in 2007. Many showed significant changes in their ability to run two miles for the Army’s physical fitness test.  

Sulfur Dioxide Effects

The effects of sulfur dioxide on your body depend on how severely you were exposed. Symptoms from mild exposure to the gas can include: 

The liquid form in particular is very cold and can cause severe burns or eye damage if you touch it. 

The chemical can do a lot of damage to your lungs in large quantities or if you’re exposed over a prolonged period of time. Severe sulfur dioxide toxicity can cause: 

  • Swollen lungs
  • Trouble breathing
  • Asthma
  • Pulmonary edema — fluid accumulation in your lungs
  • Pneumonia
  • Bronchitis

It’s possible that it could permanently damage your lung tissue. Short exposures to very high levels can even lead to a rare version of lung damage called constrictive bronchitis. It could also lead to an asthma-like condition called reactive airway dysfunction syndrome. 

You should immediately seek medical attention if you believe that you’ve been exposed to sulfur dioxide. 

Sulfur Dioxide Treatment

There’s no antidote for exposure to sulfur dioxide. In most cases of mild exposure, though, people recover with no need for medical intervention. 

After a mild exposure, you should avoid difficult physical activity for at least one to two days. This will help give your lungs a break. You should avoid smoking or even being near cigarette smoke for at least 72 hours. The smoke can irritate your already-damaged lungs. 

Also, you shouldn’t drink alcohol for at least 24 hours after exposure. Alcohol could hurt your stomach or cause other complications during your recovery.   

There are tests to look for levels of sulfur dioxide in your blood and urine, but these aren’t considered particularly helpful by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Instead, your doctor will likely observe and test your lungs if you’ve inhaled large amounts of the gas. 

If it causes a particular long-term complication, like asthma or bronchitis, then your doctor will need to treat that condition as well. The exact treatment will depend on the condition. Using an inhaler, for example, can help treat asthma symptoms.

What Benefits Are Available for Military Exposures?

The U.S. Veterans Association (VA) offers a variety of services to people who have been exposed to high levels of sulfur dioxide. These services can include: 

  • Health care
  • Disability compensation
  • Health registry evaluations 
  • Survivor and dependent benefits 

Health registry evaluations are free assessments that look for long-term problems caused by environmental hazards — like sulfur dioxide exposure. They’re available even if you don’t have VA health care.

Survivor benefits apply if a military veteran dies from health complications related to their exposure to sulfur dioxide. These can include a variety of benefits like health care and home loan assistance.  

You can file a claim with the VA for disability compensation if you believe that your health concerns are related to sulfur dioxide exposure during your service. This can be done online or you can consult your local VA office. They’ll decide your eligibility on a case-by-case basis. 

Who Could Qualify for Military Benefits?

You may be eligible for military benefits if you served in the active military, navy, or air services. 

There’s a minimum duty requirement if you enlisted after September 7, 1980. In this case, you need to have served for at least 24 consecutive months or completed a full period of active duty to qualify. 

This minimum service doesn’t apply if you were discharged because of a disability that was caused by — or made worse by — your service. It also doesn’t apply in cases of discharge for hardship. However, you likely won’t qualify if you received a dishonorable discharge. 

Whether or not you currently have health care won’t affect the benefits that you can get from the VA. You should contact your local VA office to discuss your eligibility for services like VA health care and disability compensation. 

Show Sources

SOURCES: 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Medical Management Guidelines for Sulfur Dioxide,” “Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) Patient Information Sheet.” 

U.S. Department for Veterans Affairs: “Benefits Overview for Military Exposures,” “Eligibility for VA health care,” “Sulfur Fire at Mishraq State Sulfur Mine.”  

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