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Burn Pits in Iraq and Afghanistan May Create Serious Health Problems for Troops

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A range of health problems are being linked to pits on military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan that are used to burn various materials; toxic chemicals have been found in the smoke. For example, in Balad, Iraq, Lt. Col. Michelle Franco was exposed to the fumes from a huge burn pit. The fumes, she explains, did not look, smell or taste good and stuck to her clothing, skin and hair. She began wheezing and coughing uncontrollably and when she returned to the U.S. she was diagnosed with reactive airway dysfunction syndrome; she is no longer able to serve as an Air Force nurse. Another five hundred soldiers have reported lymphoma, congestive heart problems, leukemia, neurological conditions, bronchitis, skin rashes and sleep disorders, all of which they link to burn pits on dozens of U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Disabled American Veterans, an advocacy group, claims this may be the Agent Orange of the current war zone.

According to soldiers and contractors, items that are burned in the pits have included plastics, computer parts, lubricants, medical waste, paint, oil, tires and foam cups. Some even claim amputated body parts from Iraqi patients were burned in Balad, the site of a large U.S. military hospital. In 2007, a military environmental agency tested the air at Balad and found dioxins, metals, volatile organic compounds and other toxic chemicals in the smoke. In its report, however, the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine said the substances "were within acceptable standards." The report also blamed the matter found at levels above military exposure guidelines on the blowing sand and dust that is common at bases across the area.

A military spokesman said the burning of medical waste, fuels, oils, lubricants, tires, most metals, electronics, batteries and other hazardous items is prohibited and that more environmental sampling and independent reviews are planned to ensure that soldiers are not put at risk due to the burn pits. Soldiers, however, are coming forward claiming banned materials are still being burned in the pits and are causing extensive health problems. The chief of the allergy section at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northport, N.Y., says exposure to smoke and fumes from these burn puts can increase the risk of death from lung cancer or cardiovascular disease. He also said burning plastic bottles produces dioxin and hydrochloric acid, and burning polystyrene foam cups produces dioxin, benzene and other carcinogens.

There are anecdotal reports that the burn pits produce dark, smokey clouds that can be seen from far distances. Additionally, the burn pits are frequently located in areas populated by American service members. Many of the burn pits are being operated, managed, supervised, or controlled by Halliburton, a large contractor that has made billions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon outsourced waste disposal, among many other things, to Halliburton (and its former subsidiary "KBR").

According to Rep. Timothy H. Bishop (D-N.Y.), who co-sponsored legislation to prohibit burning hazardous and medical waste unless the military showed it had no alternative, the Pentagon operates about eighty-four burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two pits have been shut down in Balad and replaced with four closed incinerators that contain pollution controls. The military has also installed twenty-seven incinerators in Iraq and Afghanistan and has ordered eighty-two more. Another piece of legislation entitled the Military Personnel Toxic Exposure Registry Act would require the Pentagon to establish a database of the tens of thousands of troops exposed to burn pits. The bill also would ban burning plastics, require annual reports to Congress on sicknesses, and ensure that veterans affected by the smoke received full service-related health benefits.

Exposure to one toxic chemical is, or can be, harmful to a human. One wonders what kind of synergism is generated when different toxins are combined with an accelerant (like jet fuel) and burned together. Exposure to these substances certainly cannot be good for our soldiers, marines, and Air Force personnel already serving in harm’s way. Another option for disposal needs to be executed by Halliburton and any other contractors responsible for these burn pits. There has been enough money made by the contractors off of the U.S. government in Iraq and Afghanistan; one would think that their profit margins allow for another, safer option.

For more on the burn pits, read the following Senate transcript, testimony by a former KBR employee: dpc.senate.gov/hearings/hearing50/lamberth.pdf