Did exposure to “burn pits” in Iraq and Afghanistan harm our troops?

Excerpt from “Lung disease of soldier linked to burn pits“, Military Times, 30 June 2009:

Even as military health officials continue to say there are “no known long-term health effects” caused by open-air burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, a team of Army doctors says a soldier’s cystic lung disease is “related to the burn pits in Iraq.”

A second set of doctors, trying to determine why 56 soldiers in the 101st Airborne Division came back from Iraq short of breath, found each had bronchiolitis that could be diagnosed only with a biopsy. That disease normally comes with organ transplantation, infection, rheumatoid arthritis or toxic fume inhalation. Because there was no scarring on the soldiers’ lungs, doctors decided it must have been toxic inhalation and added a fifth cause of bronchiolitis to their list: “Iraq.”

Since Military Times began reporting in October about burn pits in the war zones, 400 troops have contacted Disabled American Veterans to say they have breathing problems or cancers they believe came after exposure to the burn pits. Many say they have been diagnosed with “asthma-like” or “allergy-like” symptoms when they’ve complained of shortness of breath, but their doctors can’t come up with an exact diagnosis.

Meanwhile, annual cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease among service members have risen 82% since 2001, to 24,555 last year, while cases of all other respiratory illnesses have risen 37% , to 28,276, Defense Department data show.

The symptoms cited by service members are remarkably similar. But Spc. Edward Adams, 33, may be the first to have “burn pit” marked in his medical records. …

Excerpt from “‘X-File’ Vet May Be Link to Burn-Pit Truth“, Kelley B. Vlahos, Antiwar.com, 30 June 2009:

The poisonous black plume is getting more difficult for the government to ignore. So are the growing number of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans hobbling around with the bodies of old men and women, needing breathing machines to sleep at night.

But taking a cue from their Gulf War I brethren, these recent vets aren’t prepared to wait 17 years to find out what the thick fog of smoke they encountered in the war did to their lungs, their hearts, their brains, and their life expectancies.

… “Playing down” is something the military does effectively – at least long enough to buy time ahead of a public relations nightmare and the possibility of paying out millions in benefits and health care. As in the more recent cases of Gulf War illness and Vietnam-era Agent Orange exposures, this largely results in the tragic delay of proper diagnoses, treatments, and disability benefits.

But today the military may find that injured veterans are one step ahead of the usual obfuscations. Horror stories and photos shared online about the massive open burning of medical waste, chemicals, plastics, and hardware on various military installations in Iraq and Afghanistan, witnessed by tens of thousands of service members and contractors, have gone viral in recent months. These stories threaten to blow wide open the unchecked exposure of potentially thousands of people to dangerous levels of contaminants, like benzene, arsenic, Freon, cyanide, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, ethylbenzene, hydrogen cyanide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfuric acid, and xylene.

These “burn pits” are being blamed by veterans and advocates for extreme, lasting respiratory conditions and other serious illnesses, including cancer and multiple sclerosis in active-duty personnel and returning veterans, many of whom say they worked in range of one of the many open-air plumes for long periods and were reportedly told by brass that prolonged exposure was not harmful. What could possibly be the harm in breathing the jet-black emissions from a burning pyre of bio-hazardous waste (including amputated limbs), aluminum cans, Styrofoam, plastics, petroleum products, pressure-treated wood, lithium batteries, and rubber?

For more information about this developing story, see the following articles.  The Air Force Times broke this story and has done most of the research.  Kelly Vlahos’ articles at Antiwar.com provide excellent summaries.

  1. Burn pit at Balad raises health concerns“, Military Times, 29 October 2008
  2. Senator wants answers on dangers of burn pits“, Air Force Times, 9 November 2009
  3. Burn pit fallout, Military Times, 16 November 2008
  4. Troops air complaints about burn pits“, Military Times, 27 November 2009
  5. Memo about Burn Pit Health Hazards at Balad Air Base in Iraq, by Darrin L. Curtis (Lt. Colonel, USAF, Bioenvironmenal Engineering Flight Commander), 20 December 2006 — Endorsed by James R. Elliott (Lt Colonel, USAF, Chief of Aeromedical Services)
  6. Just the Facts about the Badad Burn Pit“, U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine, December 2009
  7. VA to monitor burn-pit exposure data“, Military Times, 18 March 2009
  8. Ill Veterans Demand Answers“, Kelley B. Vlahos, Antiwar.com, 23 April 2009
  9. VA to gather data on alleged burn-pit victims”, Military Force Times, 22 May 2009
  10. Lawmakers ask GAO to review burn pit data“, Military Times, 27 May 2009
  11. “Did KBR know Iraq locale was polluted, putting soldiers at risk?”, Associated Press, 24 June 2009
  12. House moves to tighten rules on burn pits“, Military Times, 26 June 2009
  13. A Sickening Situation“, 27 June 2009, Newsweek

Afterword

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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest are:

Posts about America’s men and women in uniform:

  1. An effective way to support our Troops: help the Blue Star Mothers of America, 8 June 2008
  2. Time: “America’s Medicated Army”, 12 June 2008
  3. Stratfor: “The U.S. Air Force and the Next War”, 13 June 2008
  4. “VA testing drugs on war veterans” – The Washington Times and ABC News, 18 June 2008
  5. Support the USO – more effective than a bumper sticker, 5 July 2008 — Another way to support our troops, more effective than a bumper sticker.
  6. Is post-traumatic stress disorder more common now than in past wars?, 17 July 2008
  7. One of the best geopolitical posts of the year, IMO, 12 August 2008 — “War is the great auditor of institutions”
  8. A lesson for America – and an inspiration, 13 March 2009
  9. “VA testing drugs on war veterans” – The Washington Times and ABC News, 18 June 2008
  10. Is post-traumatic stress disorder more common now than in past wars?, 17 July 2008
  11. Suicides skyrocket among US soliders, 26 March 2009
  12. Background info to the “U.S. Soldier Opens Fire on Comrades” incident, 12 May 2009

2 thoughts on “Did exposure to “burn pits” in Iraq and Afghanistan harm our troops?

  1. The military burns everything it discards in Iraq. When I was there in 2003-2004 we had a huge burn pit with garbage constantly burning in it wherever our unit set up. I was once hit by a 9mm bullet from a box of ammo that someone had dumped in the burn pit my S-2 section was using to burn classified documents. It actually bounced off my helmet!
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Thanks for the 1st person view on this! Fortunately they are being forced to change this policy. Too late for some, however.

  2. I wonder what Scipio Africanus would say about this?

    Or about the Shang Hai comp index hitting 52 week highs for the first time since Oct 2007.

    I don’t like that new chinese bull market because it never built a long enough base of support, but John “chaotic system” Boyd trend is your friend.

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