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Veterans speak out against burn pits

A range of health problems are linked to the pits on military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Toxic substances have been found in the smoke.

February 18, 2010|By David Zucchino
  • Old uniforms are tossed into a burn pit at Balad Air Base in Iraq. Troops say burned items include medical waste, plastics, computer parts and oil.
Old uniforms are tossed into a burn pit at Balad Air Base in Iraq. Troops say… (Senior Airman Julianne…)

The noxious smoke plumes that wafted over the military base in Balad, Iraq, alarmed Lt. Col. Michelle Franco. The stench from a huge burn pit clung to her clothing, skin and hair.

"I remember thinking: This doesn't look good, smell good or taste good," Franco said recently. "I knew it couldn't be good for anybody."

She wheezed and coughed constantly. When Franco 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.

Other returning veterans have reported leukemia, lymphoma, congestive heart problems, neurological conditions, bronchitis, skin rashes and sleep disorders -- all of which they attribute to burn pits on dozens of U.S. bases in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"The military needs to step up and address this problem," said John Wilson of the advocacy group Disabled American Veterans, which maintains a registry of more than 500 veterans with disorders they blame on burn pits. The fumes emanating from the pits, he warned, could become the Agent Orange of the current war zone.

Items burned in the pits have included medical waste, plastics, computer parts, oil, lubricants, paint, tires and foam cups, according to soldiers and contractors. Some say amputated body parts from Iraqi patients were burned in Balad, site of a large U.S. military hospital.

A military environmental agency that tested air samples from Balad in 2007 found dioxins, metals, volatile organic compounds and other toxic substances in the smoke. But in its report -- titled "Just the Facts" -- the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine said the substances "were within acceptable standards." It also blamed particulate matter found at levels above military exposure guidelines on the blowing sand and dust that is common at bases across the region.

"Although no chemical concerns or significant health risks have been identified, smoke from any source, including burning trash, can still cause temporary irritation effects," the report said.

Last year, the center recommended moving burn pits downwind from areas where service members live and work, and minimizing the burning of plastics and cooking grease.

According to Lt. Cmdr. Bill Speaks, a military spokesman, the burning of medical waste, fuels, oils, lubricants, tires, most metals, electronics, batteries and other hazardous items is prohibited. More environmental sampling and independent reviews are planned "to ensure . . . an improved understanding of burn-pit smoke and any resulting health risks," Speaks said.

Still, Army Master Sgt. Tex C.G. Hughes said batteries, computer parts and other banned materials were burned regularly at the main U.S. military base in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He said the fumes wafted over a nearby training camp, where he and other soldiers suffered from burning eyes, coughing and wheezing.

"You could taste the smoke all night long," said Hughes, a 61-year-old intelligence specialist. He attributes his sleep apnea to smoke exposure.

The Pentagon operates at least 84 burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Rep. Timothy H. Bishop (D-N.Y.), who cosponsored legislation last fall that prohibited burning hazardous and medical waste unless the military showed it had no alternative. The law also requires the Defense Department to justify burn pits, develop alternatives and improve medical monitoring.

Two pits at Balad were shut down in October and replaced by four closed incinerators with pollution controls. The military has installed 27 incinerators in Iraq and Afghanistan and has ordered 82 more, Bishop said.

While the Pentagon says the pits do not cause serious long-term health problems, some health experts disagree.

Dr. Anthony Szema, chief of the allergy section at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northport, N.Y., said exposure to smoke and fumes from burning refuse can increase the risk of death from lung cancer or cardiovascular disease. Szema told a Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing in November that burning plastic bottles produces dioxin and hydrochloric acid, and burning polystyrene foam cups produces dioxin, benzene and other carcinogens.

"In summary, you should not burn trash or inhale burning trash," Szema said.

And retired Lt. Col. Darrin L. Curtis -- a bioenvironmental engineer who served at Balad in 2006 and 2007 -- told the committee that "burn pits may be responsible for long-term health problems in many individuals who were exposed to the smoke plumes."

Army Sgt. 1st Class Francis Jaeger, a communications specialist, said he was regularly ordered to haul refuse to a pit at a U.S. base in Tall Afar, Iraq, where it was burned by contractors.

"We were told to burn everything -- electronics, bloody gauze, the medics' biohazard bags, surgical gloves, cardboard. It all went up in smoke," said Francis, 46, who attributes his asthma, joint pain, muscle spasms and fatigue to exposure.

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