One of the most dangerous hazards of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was a product of the U.S. military, according to
a new investigative report by The Verge’s Katie Drummond.
U.S. soldiers have been coming home with respiratory issues that they say are a result of the noxious fumes spewing from burn pits on U.S. Military bases.
Burn pits, many as large as 10 acres wide, have been used extensively on military bases to incinerate the Army’s trash since the start of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The military burned nearly everything in the pits, including plastic, styrofoam, electronics, metal cans, rubber, ammunition, explosives, feces, lithium batteries and even human body parts, according to a 2010 report from The New York Times’ James Risen.
There have been numerous news stories since 2008 detailing the dangers of burn pits and investigating their effects. Over that time, military officials have resolutely denied any connection between the burn pits and soldiers’ health concern.
The Department of Defence’s position, unchanged since 2008, is that the pits “may cause temporary coughing and redness or stinging of the eyes” but that they “usually do not cause lasting health effects…”
This is in contrast to reports from soldiers who have come back with asthma, chronic bronchitis, constrictive bronchiolitis, and, in some cases, terminal Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (or Lou Gehrig’s disease).
The pits were originally supposed to be a makeshift solution at the beginning of the war, until the bases became more established. Then large, safer incinerators would be used. Even as recent as this past July, incinerators in Afghanistan were still not being used.
However, Drummond contends that the military has long known that burn pits can harm health. The Department of Defence’s 1978 waste-management guidelines cautioned against open-air burning and said that it should only be used “[when] there is no other alternative.”
Last year, Wired surfaced a 2011 Army memo by G. Michael Pratt, an environmental science engineering officer, that acknowledged the dangers of the pits:
The long term health risk associated with air conditions on BAF from PM2.5 and PM10 indicates there is a potential that long term exposure at these levels may increase the risk for developing chronic health conditions such as reduced lung function or exacerbated chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, atherosclerosis, or other cardiopulmonary diseases. This does not mean that service members that served on BAF will acquire adverse long term pulmonary or heart conditions but that the risk for such is increased.
Even after a scathing Senate hearing in 2009, the Pentagon’s position remained unchanged, according to a New York Times report in 2010:
“At this point in time, there is no medical data to indicate any specific illness or illnesses have been caused by exposure to burn-pit smoke,” Dr. Michael E. Kilpatrick, the deputy director of the Pentagon’s Force Health Protection and Readiness Programs, said in a statement.
Despite a 2012 study showing the deleterious effect of the burn pit particles and the thousands of veterans reporting health issues, the DoD has yet to significantly alter their position.
In January, the Obama administration mandated the creation of a Veteran Affairs “Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, which at first seemed like progress. According to Drummond’s report, the registry required veterans to fill out a multiple-choice survey. Many veterans felt the survey was written in such a way to discount the effects the burn pits might have had on their health.
Two groups, led by soldiers and their families, are now fighting for an official change in position from the government that might get them benefits and medical research to alleviate the health issues.
The Sergeant Thomas Joseph Sullivan Center, led by Daniel Sullivan, has fought for the passage of the “Helping Veterans Exposed To Toxic Chemicals Act” which would fund three research centres dedicated to studying exposure-related illnesses. Iraq veteran LeRoy Torres and his wife Rosie maintain Burn Pits 360, an online registry where veterans can document their deployments, exposure and health issues.
Sullivan and the Torres have achieved one significant victory: getting the VA survey rewritten to be less antagonistic towards veterans. Other progress still seems to be slow going.
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