At the Joint Pathology Center in Maryland, researchers are investigating an important medical issue: whether shrapnel embedded in the bodies of U.S. soldiers can cause chronic health problems. Many veterans, after suffering injuries from roadside bombs during their tours of duty, carry these fragments in their bodies for life. Often surgery is risky, or the fragments are too small to remove. Either way, the metallic bits may slowly disintegrate, entering the blood and reaching vital organs.
Military doctors first became concerned about embedded shrapnel following the Gulf War in the early 1990s, when they suspected that depleted uranium from tank munitions was causing kidney damage. In 2008 the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs set up a program to monitor adverse health effects from more than a dozen metals—including lead, copper, and cadmium—found in the urine of over 8,000 shrapnel victims. Those veterans will be reanalyzed every five years for high metal concentrations and corresponding health issues, says clinical toxicologist Melissa McDiarmid of the Baltimore Veterans Affairs Medical Center. If a certain metal increases to potentially toxic levels or if X-rays reveal that fragments are dissolving, her group will suggest that the patient consult a surgeon to see if the benefits of removal outweigh the risks.