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Veterans and Lead Exposure During Military Service

November 25, 2019
soldier marksmanship training lead exposure

What is Lead?

Lead is a naturally occurring metal that has been used in the production of batteries, metal products such as solder and pipes, devices to shield X-rays, explosives, artillery, ammunition, and more.  Due to increasing health concerns related to lead exposure, lead use has decreased dramatically in gasoline, ammunition, paint, ceramics, caulking, and pipe solder over the past decades.

Veterans May Have Been Exposed to Lead

Lead exposure is a known hazard of military service.  There are several ways in which veterans may have been exposed, including if they:

  • Spent many days at indoor firing ranges, such as in a special operations unit
  • Had contact with lead-based paints that were deteriorating
  • Drank water from old lead pipes
  • Had contact with lead in the air, dust, soil, water, and some commercial products

Furthermore, troops are exposed to lead while shooting indoors and outside; gathering shell casings; smoking, chewing tobacco or eating on ranges; cleaning their weapons; and living and fighting in polluted environments.

Service Members and Veterans with Chronic Lead Poisoning

Since 2012, approximately 40 service members have been tested at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York for chronic lead poisoning (Kime, 2019)*.  Of those, a dozen have measured bone lead levels higher than what is considered normal, including four with almost twice the expected amount.  Dozens of other service members and veterans have gone to the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine in Ohio to be treated for lead and other types of metal poisoning.  While the number of affected soldiers is seemingly small, the diagnosis is extremely debilitating and life changing.  Symptoms of chronic lead poisoning often go unexplained and can mimic traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), leading to improper diagnoses.  Some of the most common symptoms include the following:

  • Impaired concentration
  • Anger
  • Anxiety and impulsivity
  • Depression
  • Memory loss
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Tremors
  • Weakness in fingers, wrists, or ankles
  • High blood pressure
  • Low sperm count and miscarriage
  • Peripheral neuropathy
  • Severe damage of the brain and kidneys
  • Anemia

Lead Exposure Monitoring and Testing Programs

Lead monitoring and testing programs at the Department of Defense (DoD) have focused primarily on service members who work on firing ranges and on the civilian staff at ranges, who are regulated by Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines.  DoD policy requires service members who may be exposed to high levels of airborne lead for 30 days or more days a year to get a blood test for lead, with follow-up tests at least annually.

Service members and veterans have requested that more troops be tested and the problem be researched further; however, little progress has been made.  In 2012, DoD asked the National Research Council to study the levels of occupational exposure to lead on military firing ranges, but the council’s review was hampered by data being withheld by the Pentagon.

This resulted in the council having incomplete information, even on basic facts like the number of military firing ranges in operation, air quality data, and blood test results.  With that limitation, the National Research Council was not able to comment specifically on the risks facing people who work at military shooting ranges.  Nonetheless, the council concluded that the prevailing American workplace regulations (which DoD uses as a guideline) allowed for higher levels of lead in the blood than are actually safe.  In 2017, DoD tightened its regulations and set “20 micrograms per deciliter of blood” as the threshold for removing military and civilian staff from jobs involving high exposure to lead.

Under the new regulation, the Army performed 1,728 blood lead level tests on active-duty soldiers in the first two quarters of 2013 (Kime, 2019).  Of those, 335 service members had levels higher than 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood; two service members had levels higher than 40 micrograms; three service members had levels higher than 20 micrograms; and the remaining 330 service members had levels between 5 and 19 micrograms (Kime, 2019).  Based on these numbers, military health officials determined that elevated blood lead levels is not a widespread problem.

Overall, DoD has found very few cases of chronic lead poisoning, leading officials to believe that there is not a widespread problem.  Nonetheless, public health officials have asserted that this medical issue is largely overlooked, underestimated, and underreported.

VA Disability Compensation for Lead Exposure

Veterans may file a claim for disability compensation for health problems they believe are related to lead exposure during military service; however, VA decides these claims on a case-by-case basis.  There is currently no presumption of exposure or service connection for lead exposure.  As such, veterans will likely have to file for service connection on a direct basis.

*Data is drawn from the following source: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/03/magazine/lead-poisoning-military-soldiers.html