LONG ISLAND, NY – Navigating the foggy landscape of vague symptoms has become a common route for countless veterans who served during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In an effort to better understand these ailments, a new multi-year study seeks to use innovative technology and remote monitoring to investigate the health impacts of exposure to open-air burn pits. At the helm of this pioneering venture is Major Chad Lennon, a Marine Corps Reserve, who spent seven months in Afghanistan near the toxic plumes of burning waste.
Throughout these two wars, the military commonly used open-air burn pits to dispose of military waste. This waste included everything from plastics and metals to biohazardous material, all doused in jet fuel and set alight. Lennon recalls spending countless nights near these pits, the black smoke suffusing the air around him. This exposure to burn pits has been linked to a myriad of health conditions, including asthma, emphysema, sarcoidosis and several forms of cancer, all of which are recorded by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
For Lennon, the repercussions began with unsettling physical symptoms – shortness of breath, chest tightness, persistent illnesses – incongruities for a lifelong runner. He attributes these symptoms to his exposure to the burn pit radiations, a belief shared by many veterans.
To understand and quantify this link, Lennon and other veterans have embarked on a groundbreaking study using sophisticated Ai technology and wearable monitors, carried out by Northwell Health, New York’s largest healthcare system.
Under the supervision of Dr. Anthony Szema, the study aims to collect real-time health data such as heart rate and EKG’s from veterans over several years. Participants wear a ring-like device that pairs with an app on their phone, allowing continuous monitoring of their oxygen saturation and heart rate. Additionally, the app can detect potential panic attacks and prompt specific survey responses.
The sheer volume of data set to be gathered over the study’s duration is colossal. By implementing artificial intelligence to process the data, a more comprehensive understanding of the veterans’ everyday experiences and health status is made possible.
Defining the ill-defined is one of the main goals of this research. Veterans’ complaints often center around feeling unwell, despite tests revealing no evident health issues. According to Dr. Szema, the usual battery of medical examinations can yield normal results despite these persistent lower respiratory symptoms.
Adding to the existing body of research on burn pit exposure is crucial. The long-term impacts of toxic exposure remain largely unknown, and the unveiling of these implications may hold the key to developing new diagnostic tools for lung diseases.
Parallels can already be drawn between burn pit exposure and the health problems caused by Agent Orange, an herbicide notoriously used during the Vietnam War. Dr. Szema predicted that diseases relating to burn pit exposure will continue to torment the veterans who served in these extensive wars, affecting an even larger portion of veterans due to the wars’ protracted duration.
Major Lennon participates in the study, driven by his worry for the future and the desire to be proactive about his health. The recent passing of the PACT Act, making it easier for veterans exposed to burn pits to obtain health and disability benefits, alleviates some concerns, but underscores the urgency of understanding and managing the long-term impacts of burn pit exposure.
As the study progresses, the hope remains to shed light on the myriad of health issues haunting several of our nations’ brave military veterans, many of whom carry the invisible scars of their dedicated service.