Thousands of U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are reporting breathing problems, and a fierce debate has emerged over how serious and lasting the impairments will prove to be.

The New York Times reports that conditions related to the troops’ deployments may have caused 80,000 or more service members to develop the problems, which include coughing, wheezing and chest pain. It based that estimate on a 2009 study that found that 14 percent of troops who had been deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan reported new respiratory problems, compared with 10 percent of those who were not deployed.

On one side of the debate over the significance of the breathing problems are scientists, many of them government experts. They say that  troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan often were exposed to toxic dust storms and “burn pits” used to incinerate garbage at military bases, leaving the soldiers with serious and potentially lifelong respiratory conditions.

These scientists question whether the government is dragging its feet in studying the health issues and whether the service members are being properly compensated for their lung ailments.

“I’m concerned that this exposure is not getting the serious review it needs,” said Capt. Mark Lyles, the chairman of medical sciences and biotechnology at the Center for Naval Warfare Studies in Newport, R.I.

On the other side of the debate are officials at the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Although they acknowledge that some troops are returning with respiratory problems, they say those problems usually are temporary. “I think we’ll find the majority who deploy do not have long-term chronic pulmonary diseases related to deployment,” said Col. Lisa Zacher, a doctor who is the pulmonary consultant to the Army’s surgeon general.

The Times gave the example of Sgt. Gary Durham, a former cross-country runner and and mountain climber who spent a year in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division.

He found himself gasping for air and coughing up phlegm when he returned to Fort Campbell, Ky., in 2004.  A battery of lung tests showed nothing wrong, and before he was medically discharged in 2005, an Army doctor suggested that his problem might be psychological.

But last year a specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center who had treated Iraq veterans for breathing problems did a lung biopsy on Durham and concluded that he had a debilitating injury, constrictive bronchiolitis, an irreversible scarring of the small airways.

Dr. Robert F. Miller, who treated Durham, conducted similar biopsies on 56 previously deployed veterans, 40 of whom had constrictive bronchiolitis.

The condition can make breathing during moderate exercise feel like “sucking air through a straw,” Dr. Miller said.

Fifteen other biopsies revealed other lung ailments, even though almost all of Dr. Miller’s patients had been through standard lung function tests that found nothing wrong.

“My concern is that these guys come back from war, can’t do a two-mile run and then are dismissed from the Army,” Dr. Miller said. “They are told: ‘Maybe you’re out of condition.’ ”

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