WVU researchers sift through smoke to see how hotspots make veterans sick | Today

Timothy Nurkiewicz, a researcher at the WVU School of Medicine, and his colleagues are using this custom stove at the University’s inhalation facility to examine the damage that burn pit exposure can cause. The stove burns pellets that the School of Forestry has made to resemble the composition of the hearths of the busiest military bases in Iraq. Simulating exposure to combustion fireplaces in this way allows researchers to safely and accurately study the health effects of combustion fireplace emissions.
(WVU Photo/Tyler Mertins)

Military burns are not campfires.

A campfire burns wood, but according to West Virginia University Medicine School searcher Timothy Nurkiewiczcombustion pits can consume things like batteries, bullets, jet fuel, surgical waste, and human waste.

Nurkiewicz, president of the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, investigates how inhaling the emissions from these burning, smoldering materials could lead to serious health problems in military veterans. He and his team use a special stove in WVU’s Inhalation facility to safely recreate exposure conditions in the home and study their health effects.

The project is a collaboration with the National Guard, Minneapolis Veterans Affairs and Northwestern University.

“When camping, what you pack, you pack, right?” Nurkiewicz said. “Well, the military must prevent the enemy from taking advantage of their presence. So they destroy everything they have. In concept the logic is obvious, but in practice it’s a horrible thing because you’re throwing away everything from standard waste – paper, plastic, fabric, food – to paint, oil, batteries, computers, unspent ammunition and jet fuel. And I haven’t even mentioned medical waste as well as standard human waste.

At the Inhalation Facility, run by Nurkiewicz, he and his team use a custom stove that they modified to burn pellets that incorporate the most common materials that go into burn pits.

The composition of the pellets is based on samples of “sand and ash taken from some of the busiest bases in Iraq”, he said.

The WVU School of Forestry in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design manufactures the pellets from materials that dominated the samples, including paper, rubber, plastic and nylon.

After Nurkiewicz and his team introduce the pellets to the stove, they will use jet fuel to light them. This is an important detail as the soldiers used jet fuel as the main accelerator for the burn pits.

As the pellets burn, researchers will capture the emissions they release and analyze the toxic substances they contain in real time.

They will also pump some of the emissions into an exposure chamber where experimental animals are present.

After the animals have been exposed to the emissions for different durations, the researchers will observe how their physiology and behavior change.

They will also sample the animals’ blood to identify potential biomarkers that could serve as early signs of disease.

Later, they will work with the Minneapolis Veterans Health Care System to perform similar blood tests on a large cohort of veterans diagnosed with a chronic illness with multiple symptoms. Formerly known as “Gulf War Syndrome”, CMI emerged in veterans of the 1991 Gulf War and has been linked to inhaling emissions from combustion fireplaces.

The convergence of biomarkers could point to a future blood test for BMI, which is difficult to diagnose due to its many symptoms: pain, lung and cardiovascular disease, behavioral changes, decreased energy and impaired immune function.

“It’s not just cardiovascular disease,” Nurkiewicz said. “This is a single-exposure toxicity that no other person has experienced. Combined with the stresses associated with deployment, the risk of adverse health effects is high. If you were deployed to the Middle Orient, you were probably exposed to the emissions from a burn pit, and if you jump ahead, you now have veterans who are ending their deployments, and they’re coming back in huge numbers and with very serious health issues.

It hasn’t always been easy for veterans with CMI to get the help they need for their “very serious health issues.”

For example, a new bill to extend health care benefits to veterans injured by burning fireplaces – HR 3967 known as the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act – recently became law. But he only did so after a long public battle between lawmakers and veterans’ advocates.

Nurkiewicz’s project — which received support from the West Virginia Institute of Clinical and Translational Sciences and the WVU Health Sciences Center Office of Research and Higher Education — can increase the likelihood that veterans with CMI will get the treatment and services they need.

“Even the most naïve politician is not going to advocate for resource allocation because of the challenges in diagnosing BMI,” Nurkiewicz said. “They will see it as a waste of money. This is therefore the greatest objective of our research: to provide a more precise and irrefutable diagnosis from a clinical point of view.

The research reported in this publication was supported by the WVU Health Sciences Center Office of Research and Higher Education and the West Virginia Clinical and Translational Science Institute. WVCTSI is funded by an IDeA Clinical and Translational grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, under award number U54GM104942, to support the mission of building clinical and translational research infrastructure and capacity to impact health disparities in West Virginia.

Editor’s Note: The use of animals in this project has been evaluated by the WVU Institutional Ethics Committee on Animal Care and Use. WVU is voluntarily accredited by AAALAC, a national peer organization that sets a global benchmark for animal welfare in science.



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