Burn Pits May Affect Veterans' Health

This piece first aired in July, 2009, as part of the show, “The Struggle at Home.”

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    HOST: It’s a simple fact that being in the military is a dangerous job. But the type of dangers US troops face in Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t limited to the ones you might expect. Recently, a large amount of veterans have returned home from overseas with unusual symptoms, ranging from rashes to severe breathing problems to cancer. They believe the common cause is smoke from the US military’s burn pits, huge piles of trash that are lit on fire for waste disposal purposes. Louis Katz has the story.

    LOUIS KATZ: Joint Base Balad is an important US military installation in Iraq. But if the word “base” conjures up images of a small outpost, think again. The base is more like a city, home to tens of thousands of US troops and civilian contractors. Because Balad is so large, it produces a huge amount of waste. This poses an immediate difficulty. How should the military get rid of all this garbage? Terry Hindall, a retired Air Force Security Force member who served at Joint Base Balad in 2004, says that the military’s answer was simple: burn it.

    TERRY HINDALL: Everything just got burned at the same place at the same time, whether it be old oil or it be trash or it be whatever we were burning at the time – I mean, it was all one big burn pit.

    LOUIS KATZ: The pits can be as large as two football fields, and they burn constantly, often very near to the living quarters of those on base. Christoper Coppola, a former pediatric surgeon with the Air Force, also served at Balad. His own memories of the burn pits are far from pleasant.

    CHRISTOPHER COPPOLA: It would just put out this black column of smoke, so it was this terrible stench to deal with. It just smelled like things burning. Not just the typical smell of, you know, paper or leaves or wood burning, but you’d also have kind of a chemical smell, as if plastic was burning. I just can tell you personally that it made me feel very phlegmy, like I was coughing and hacking mucus frequently, and, um, kind of like a sinusy clogged feeling.

    LOUIS KATZ: But for veterans like Terry Hindall, the problems of the burn pit may have extended well beyond their time at Balad. Hindall believes that the pollution from the burn pit is at the root of his own serious health concerns.

    TERRY HINDALL: I retired, and within the first seven months, there were growths that started coming out, and they were all over my body – mostly on my face though. And they were cancerous. And I couldn’t figure out why I was having these issues. I think I had three times, cancer removed from my face and my body. I just recently, within the last six months, had a major surgery to remove body parts that were cancerous. And nobody to this point can explain why this was happening to me, other than where I was and – I mean they’re trying to trail it back to where I was, when I was there, what I experienced, and things like that. And the only thing different that I can remember is the ungodly burn pits that we had over there.

    LOUIS KATZ: Joint Base Balad isn’t unique, and neither is Terry Hindall’s story. There are at least two dozen burn pits in existence today across Iraq and Afghanistan, and many more cases of veterans discovering significant health concerns upon their return home.

    Kerry Baker is Assistant National Legislative Director for the Disabled American Veterans. He has been involved in keeping tabs on veterans like Terry Hindall, who have experienced serious health effects after exposure to the pits.

    KERRY BAKER: We’ve now had over 400 people in the database, I’m guessing around 430. The trends are very noticeable. About 80 of those had cancer. Now that’s an extremely high rate, but how that plays out with the total cancer rates across the military, we just don’t know yet.. But probably two to three hundred people on the list all had respiratory disease, in some form or another. A lot of neurological problems, a lot of skin disorders, a lot of unexplained migraines.

    LOUIS KATZ: The military denies any serious health risk associated with the burn pits, pointing to its own studies which have found acceptable levels of chemicals in the burn pit smoke. But Baker isn’t satisfied.

    KERRY BAKER: You would think by now that the DoD, after putting people in harm’s way, when something like this happens, that they would be interested in finding out if troops are safe. This kind of stuff goes back to the atomic tests, Agent Orange in the first Gulf War. In every situation, as its turned out, in the long run, there have been people made sick by these types of exposures.

    LOUIS KATZ: Tom Tarantino is legislative associate for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and is an Iraq veteran himself. He agrees that the Department of Defense hasn’t done enough to get to the bottom of the issue. Even if the military is right about the health effects of the pits, he believes clearer information should be available.

    TOM TARANTINO: There’s a lot of conflicting conclusions. The first report that came out from the Air Force said that the particulate matter in Balad air base was extremely high, to disastrously dangerous levels. It had been called the worst environmental disaster that certain officials had ever seen. Later the DoD had revised those to say, well, it was a calculation error, it really shouldn’t cause any long term effects after one leaves the area. And so there’s a lot of conflicting reports, and what we haven’t seen are the studies that the DoD has done, because those are classified and they won’t release them.

    LOUIS KATZ: Tarantino and Baker take some solace in recent events. The VA has agreed to do a large scale study of the health of Iraq veterans. And recently the House passed a provision that prevents the military from using burn pits in operations that last longer than a year. But as of now, the burn pits are still common in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tarantino thinks that it doesn’t have to be that way.

    TOM TARANTINO: There are technologies and, you know, methods of disposing of waste that are not only safer for us and for our health, but they’re actually a little bit more effective. There are these incinerators that the military has purchased but really have not put on line.

    LOUIS KATZ: Incinerators burn waste at a much higher temperature, which means that waste is more completely burned and the air is clearer. And while even cleaner solutions may be available, the incinerators are already in these countries and ready to be hooked up. It’s unclear why they aren’t in use now, although cost concerns may be playing a role.

    However, the potential benefit of new waste disposal methods is little help to veterans already believed to be affected by the burn pits in these countries. Christopher Coppola believes that dealing with the burn pits is only part of the larger issue.

    CHRISTOPHER COPPOLA: I think that for the aftereffects, taking care of veterans in general, for all their health needs, including any – any pulmonary effects that may be there from their service. And whether it’s from simply being exposed to the climate and the dust, or to the burn pits specifically, I think doing all we can to take care of veteran’s health needs in general is important, rather than any focused effort on pulmonary effects of the burn pit.

    LOUIS KATZ: In the meantime, veterans believed to be affected by the burn pits have responded in different ways. Terry Hindall, frustrated with the way the VA failed to address his problems, has given up on receiving help from them. Some affected veterans have started bringing lawsuits against contractors that helped run the burn pits. Others have taken an active role in pushing for legislation addressing the pits.

    But these divergent paths merely cloud over a more fundamental truth: these men and women’s lives have been harmed, and no amount of action can erase that fact.

    For War News Radio, I’m Louis Katz.

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