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Veterans exposed to toxins have another battle after war

A large number of our U.S. military troops are deployed internationally during wartime to protect America's interests. Little did many know that after stepping up to serve their country, they would have another battle to fight. This battle unfortunately can be more difficult to win.

Dr. Nancy Klimas, who is the director of Clinical Immunology Research at Miami Veterans Affairs Medical Center, works routinely with veterans who have been exposed to dangerous toxins which have caused permanent damage to their health. Her extensive research has shed light on the variety of situations that have occurred over the decades of military involvement.

One of the most notorious cases that garnered media attention involved the use of Agent Orange, the controversial and damaging chemical used during the Korean and Vietnam Wars to clear pathways through heavy foliage for U.S. troops.

With U.S. government use of the toxic chemical spanning 20 years, 1955 to 1975, veterans from that service "have had terrible health consequences," said Klimas.

Decades ago, chemical exposure, intolerances and their impacts on the human body appear to have not been at the forefront of the government's concerns. Seeing the grave health conditions our veterans have experienced and are living with as a result of these toxins, doctors and society have now become more aware of the dangers and related warning signs. This has led to the implementation of better practices and measures to help and not hurt our service members to the same degree.

It is important to be our own best advocate. We have to navigate the best we can, given our circumstances and environment. This is also a reminder for us non-veterans to be mindful of toxins we are being exposed to and what small and large steps can be taken to minimize or "expel" them.

"Agent Orange and other herbicides [were used] to clear the area between North and South Korea," Klimas said. To this day, a telling sign remains, she noted, "nothing grows there."

The Veterans Administration confirms use of this tactical herbicide and the negative health consequences resulting from it.

"Veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange may have certain related illnesses," the VA's website states.

Just a few of the many diseases caused by Agent Orange exposure include Hodgkin's disease, prostate cancer, type 2 diabetes mellitus, and Parkinson's disease. If you are a veteran and have had the exposure, I encourage you to work with the VA for treatment and receive any benefits that may be available to you.

Different toxins have been used over the years in wars. For example, in World War I, mustard gas was used. The VA confirmed various names that were used for mustard gas: "sulfur mustard, yperite, nitrogen mustard, [and] lewisite."

Klimas said that the mustard gas used in the trenches during World War I "ravaged lungs." She saw this first-hand in family members who served in that war.

World War II, she said, "Also saw some use of toxic chemicals – but less so since the memories of World War I were still fresh."Things, however, took another bad turn with Vietnam, and then again in a different fashion during the Gulf War.

Klimas is recognized as an expert in Gulf War Illness and is a member of the VA Research Advisory Committee on it.

She said those veterans, from 1990 and 1991, "were heavily exposed to neurotoxins with gas, oil fires, and pesticides at dangerous levels." Klimas described it as "a perfect storm of toxic nastiness."

Unfortunately, this toxic exposure has resulted in an illness that mirrors ME/CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome).

"About 1 in 3 of our veterans, 30 years later, are still sick after being exposed to the toxins in the Gulf War," Klimas said. "You can't tell ME/CFS and Gulf War Illness apart. It makes us wonder if we knew then what we know now, how many veterans would be living much healthier lives."

The VA does acknowledge that environmental hazards were also present while military personnel were serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other areas.

"A few of the contact points were large burn pits, pollutants from a waste incinerator [in] Japan, and a large sulfur fire [in] Iraq," Klimas explained.

It must be noted that the VA offers significant resources and support to veterans. If they haven't already, veterans and their loved ones should read "Exposure to Hazardous Chemicals and Materials" at

Veterans are not the only ones exposed to toxins in the environment. As long as chemical pesticides (non-organic) are used, people will be exposed. In decades past, agricultural crops in North San Diego County and Imperial County (along with other areas) have been subjected to aerial spraying of pesticides. Most people have not noticed it in recent times in North County as groves and farms have shrunk in size and aerial spraying is not favored, both in terms of cost and in terms of environmental restrictions. However, many residents will easily recall the days of watching aerial spraying.

As a civilian or veteran, you may be curious if treatment options help remove toxins from the body.

Fortunately, "the body has a very impressive, detoxification system," Klimas said. "You are detoxifying right now, every minute of the day."

Understandably, severe problems can arise when the human body is overwhelmed or expends vital elements it relies on to function. Klimas explained, "Every cell has detoxification pathways – they need antioxidants to work well."

The liver and kidney are key organs that detox toxins. "Your liver is a detoxification machine, and it works best if it has the nutrients it needs to do the job and good blood flow," she said. This goes back to how important it is to be mindful of what you are consuming, what environment you allow yourself to be in, and being your own best advocate for your health and wellbeing.

It is beneficial to incorporate foods into our diets that serve as antioxidants. Upping our water intake is vital. Reducing the use of alcohol and over-the-counter drugs are very important as well.

Klimas confirmed specific things that negatively hurt detoxification pathways. "They can be damaged with chronic exposure to alcohol and high doses or chronic uses of acetaminophen (similar to Tylenol)," she said. Staying hydrated cannot be emphasized enough. Internally and externally, water is paramount and makes a difference. Klimas highlighted that the kidney "needs a lot of steady hydration to work well."

Consistency is key, once again. Being mindful of foods, hydration and toxic exposures, helps us avoid taking two steps back before taking one step forward.

"Some toxins get in the tissues and stay for years, even decades – like mercury and arsenic," Klimas explained.

"Avoid exposures when you can; feed your detoxification system with foods rich in antioxidants; some folks should add antioxidant supplements (NAC and coQ10), and hydrate (8 glasses of water is a reasonable goal)," Klimas said.

She also said she hopes everyone will lobby for "strict rules and enforcement of clean water and food laws."

Shelby Ramsey is the author of the blog,, which features interviews with patients and medical experts.


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