The New Agent Orange? Scientists Sound Alarm on Toxic Sand in Afghanistan

Politics Daily reported Friday that scientists have found signs of another potential threat to our soldiers in Afghanistan: high levels of environmental toxins that can cause brain damage.

As investigative reporter Sheila Kaplan found:

American forces in Afghanistan, who already face roadside bombs and insurgent attacks, may be dealing with an environmental enemy as well -- toxic sand that can damage their brains, according to a recent Navy study.

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The Navy said the findings are preliminary and that so far no definitive link has been found between the inhalation of sand and brain damage. Still, the study followed reports that returning soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq are experiencing impairments such as memory loss and difficulty concentrating, which may not always be attributable to traumatic brain injuries.

Kaplan, a Fellow at the Nation Institute who specializes in environmental journalism, also reported on the dangerous toxic metals that Navy researchers found. "The research team analyzed sand samples from Afghanistan, and found manganese, silicon, iron, magnesium, aluminum, chromium and trace elements. Manganese, on its own, is considered a potent neurotoxicant capable of damaging the brain and causing Parkinsons-like symptoms. They are also studying sand from Iraq," Kaplan noted. "Troops caught in sandstorms may inhale toxic particles, which can be carried to the brain, lungs and other organs."

The scientists preliminary findings also saw an apparent increase in respiratory complaints and impaired cognitive functioning in returning soldiers, but demonstrated the link between the toxins and biological damage at the cellular level. As Politics Daily reported:

The researchers conducted tests in which nerve cells were exposed to the toxic sand. "As the sand extract dose increases at the higher concentration you see cell death," said Gunasekar, who accompanied his talk with a video of a fierce sandstorm.

The new findings are spurring other researchers to ask for further research into cognitive deterioration that goes beyond traumatic brain injuries and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. As Politics Daily noted:

Lisa Jaycox is a senior behavioral scientist with the Rand Corp. who has studied cognitive difficulties after exposure to blasts. She supports a closer look at the possible threat posed by sand.

"A lot of people are reporting headaches and difficulties with memories and such that are hard to explain," she said. "The symptoms overlap with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. There is lots of controversy about what these cognitive symptoms are, whether they are related to a central brain problem or more of a mental health or emotional problem or a combination. This idea of the neurotoxins in the sand would be yet another thing that could contribute to some cognitive problems. I think there needs to be more research is the bottom line."