THURSDAY, March 31 (HealthDay News) -- While the risks of gunfire and explosive devices to U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq are obvious, new research suggests that high levels of air pollution in that country might pose a threat to their respiratory health.
Scientists have been collecting air samples in Baghdad since 2008, and they found that the Iraqi air often contains fine particulate matter made up of many elements, including silica, sulfates and heavy metals, such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury. Fine particulate matter is of greater concern than large particulate matter because these tiny particles can travel deep into the lungs, where they can cause more damage.
Some air quality readings in Iraq found that the fine particulate matter was nearly 10 times higher than the levels generally considered acceptable in the United States.
"There is concern with the amount of the fine particles in the atmosphere that the soldiers, and the Iraqi citizens, are living in," said study co-author Jennifer Bell, a doctoral student in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.
"Fine particulate matter is very, very small. If you think about the size of a hair follicle, these particles are smaller than a hair follicle," said Bell. "The natural defenses, like the hairs in the nose, normally trap coarse particles, but these particles are so small they bypass the body's natural defenses."
What's more, she said, in a place like Iraq, where it's extremely hot, it can be very difficult to breathe that hot air through the nose, and many people breathe through their mouth. This allows fine particles to travel even further, into the deepest part of the lungs, known as the alveoli.
The alveoli are the area in the lungs that allow oxygen to pass into the bloodstream. If you've inhaled fine particulate matt
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