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U.S. Abandons Toxic Burn Pits as it Withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan

American troops are among the victims of the Pentagon’s “pollute & run” policy
Matthew J. Nasuti (Former U.S. Air Force Captain)
Saturday 10 December 2011

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U.S. service members and their Iraqi and Afghan allies have a common enemy. It is not Iran, the Taliban or al-Qaeda, but the Pentagon which operated hundreds of toxic burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the U.S. completes its withdrawal from Iraq and begins to draw down in Afghanistan, the American military, pursuant to its “pollute and run” policy, is abandoning millions of kilograms of toxic and potentially radioactive waste. Everything is being buried and covered over, just as it did in Vietnam and in the Philippines when the U.S. withdrew from Clark Air Base and the Subic Bay naval installation. The Pentagon seems to hope that all the health problems of U.S. troops can likewise be buried and covered over.

The (U.S.) Air Force Times ran an editorial on March 1, 2010 that read: “Stamp Out Burn Pits.” We reprint the first portion of that editorial:

“A growing number of military medical professionals believe burn pits are causing a wave of respiratory and other illnesses among troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Found on almost all U.S. bases in the war zones, these open-air trash sites operate 24 hours a day, incinerating trash of all forms — including plastic bottles, paint, petroleum products, unexploded ordinance, hazardous materials, even amputated limbs and medical waste. Their smoke plumes belch dioxin, carbon monoxide and other toxins skyward, producing a toxic fog that hangs over living and working areas.”

On April 12, 2010, the Richmond Times-Dispatch carried an article by David Zucchino who investigated the American burn pits in Iraq. He interviewed Army Sgt. 1st Class Francis Jaeger who hauled military waste to the Balad burn. Jaeger told Zucchino:

“We were told to burn everything - electronics, bloody gauze, the medics’ biohazard bags, surgical gloves, cardboard. It all went up in smoke.”

According to a website called the “Burn Pits Action Center” large numbers of American veterans who came in contact with burn pit smoke have been diagnosed with cancer, neurological diseases, cardiovascular diseases, breathing and sleeping problems and various skin rashes.

On October 28, 2009, President George W. Bush, signed into law H.R. 2647, which included the provisions of “The Military Personnel War Zone Toxic Exposure Prevention Act.” The Act was sponsored by Congressman Tim Bishop of New York and supported by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the National Guard Association of the United States, and the Military Officers Association banned the use of burn pits unless they were specifically deemed essential by the Secretary of Defense. Despite the law, burn pit use continued in Iraq and reportedly continues today in Afghanistan.

The impetus for H.R. 2647 was Lieutenant Colonel Darrin L. Curtis, Ph.D., who was a Bioenvironmental Engineering Flight Commander at Balad Air Base in Iraq in 2006. Lt. Col. Curtis wrote a December 20, 2006, report on the environmental and health impacts of the Balad burn pit. He stated that the burn pit was “the worst environmental site” he had seen in seventeen years of environmental work in the United States. He characterized the smoke released by the military as: “an acute health hazard” to everyone who has been deployed or will be deployed to Balad. Lt. Col. Curtis’ report was reviewed and endorsed by Lieutenant Colonel James R. Elliott, Chief of Aeromedical Services. The Pentagon ultimately ignored the report just as it had ignored the Fall 2004 study in (U.S. Army) “Engineer - The Professional Bulletin” which found that by 2002, Kandahar Airfield was facing “a growing human health and environmental threat” from the uncontrolled burning of hazardous waste.

In June 2008, the U.S. Army Center of Health (USACHPPM) issued a “Fact Sheet” that downplayed any health problems associated with the burn pits. It stated that the safety of the burn pits had been independently validated by the Defense Health Board (DHB). It went on to claim that:

“The DHB is an independent board comprised of experts from private industry and recognized universities.”

Research into the DHB reveals otherwise. The Board is primarily composed of retired Generals, Admirals and Colonels, along with politically appointees from prior Administrations and civilian consultants currently under contract to the Pentagon and other government agencies. There is nothing independent about the Board. The Senate Democratic Policy Committee took testimony from Dr. Anthony Szema, an Assistant Professor of Medicine at SUNY and a physician with the Department of Veterans Affairs. He provided a detailed refutation of the DHB’s flawed findings regarding the burn pits. His testimony is available on the Internet under the phrase: “Are Burn Pits Making Our Soldiers Sick?”

On October 3, 2008, the Military Times published a damning report by Kelly Kennedy entitled “Army Making Toxic Mess in War Zones.” The article was prompted by the release in September 2008, of a Rand Corporation study that detailed a horrific series of environmental spills, releases and disposals in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bruce Travis of the U.S. Army Engineering School told the Times that no environmental rules were complied with in Iraq from 2003-2008 (this would presumably apply to Afghanistan also). He went on to state that an estimated 11 million pounds of hazardous waste were disposed of in Iraq up to 2008. This practice did not end in 2008. A U.S. Government Accountability Report in 2010, detailed inspections in 2009/2010 of four American bases in Afghanistan and none were found to be compliant with environmental standards.

Most American military waste falls into one of the following twelve (12) categories. They are called the “dirty dozen:”

1. Paints, asbestos, solvents, grease, cleaning solutions.

2. Building materials that contain formaldehyde, copper, arsenic and hydrogen cyanide.

3. Hydraulic fluids (hazardous), aircraft de-icing fluids (toxic), antifreeze (poisonous) and used oil (cancer-causing).

4. Jet fuel, gasoline and diesel fuel.

5. Pesticides and various neuro-toxic poisons resulting from attempts to control flies, mosquitoes, ants, fleas and rodents. The military refers to such practices as “vector control.”

6. Lead, nickel, zinc and cadmium battery waste and acids (toxic/corrosive).

7. Electronic waste (or E-waste). This includes computers, printers, faxes, screens, televisions, radios, refrigerators, communications gear and test equipment. They contain cancer-causing chemicals such as the flame retardant PBDE (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), PCDD (polychlorinated dioxins), barium, copper, lead, zinc, cadmium oxides and cadmium sulphides and trivalent antimony.

8. Light bulbs containing hazardous levels of mercury. Disposal of these light bulbs in ordinary landfills is prohibited in the United States.

9. Plastics. When burned, many plastics release a deadly mix of chemicals including dioxins, furans, benzene, di 2-ethylhexyl phthalates (DEHP), hydrochloric acid, benzo(a)pyrene (BAP) and various acids and chlorine gas (which is a neurotoxin).

10. Medical/Infectious Disease waste and Biohazard Materials.

11. Ammunition waste. Lead, brass and other metals from ammunition along with all the constituents of the propellants, including trinitrotoluene, picric acid, diphenylamine, nitrocellulose, nitroglycerin, potassium nitrate, barium nitrate, tetracene, diazodintrophenol, phosphorus, peroxides, thiocarbamide, potassium chlorate, vinyl fluoride, vinyl chloride, sodium fluoride and sodium sulfate.

12. Radioactive waste. The American military routinely uses a large number of devices and equipment that contain radioactive elements or radioluminescent elements. These materials are referred to as “Radioactive Commodities” by the military. The primary radioactive materials are: Uranium, Tritium, Radium 226, Americium 241, Thorium, Cesium 137 and Plutonium 239. A partial list of radioactive equipment that may have been disposed of in burn pits or buried in Iraqi and Afghan landfills includes: night vision devices, calibration sets, engine components, weapon sights, compasses, fire control devices, level gauges, collimators, sensors, test equipment, vehicle dials, radios, chemical agent monitors and communication equipment, along with laboratory and hospital machines. In addition to these commodities, the military also uses 120mm depleted uranium (DU) warheads and 20mm DU ammunition along with DU armor plating.

The Pentagon admits operating 84 “official” burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet Adam Levine from CNN reported on October 15, 2010, that at least 221 burn pits were operated in Afghanistan alone. That number is believed to be only half of the actual burn pits operated in Afghanistan. On February 10, 2010, CBS News published a report by Nick Turse entitled: “the 700 military bases of Afghanistan.” CBS claims that about 400 bases, posts and camps belong to Coalition forces, most of which are American. Each of these facilities may have one or more burn pits, landfills, or disposal pits. The number of U.S. military bases in Iraq may be double this. Each needs to be excavated, sampled and analyzed.

The latest and perhaps the most disturbing burn pit information was published last month on “Wired.Com.” Written by Katie Drummond, it was entitled: “Congressman: The Military’s Burn Pit Screwed Our Soldiers.” The Congressman is Todd Akin from Missouri. The outrage was over a press release issued on October 31, 2011 by the Institute of Medicine, which is the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences. It was unable to complete its report on the burn pits, a report that had been commissioned by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The Institute of Medicine found 53 toxins in the air above the Balad air base in Iraq but could not determine the sources for each due to a lack of assistance by the Pentagon. The Institute was unable to obtain information from the Pentagon as to what it burned and buried. The Pentagon claims it kept no records and has no scientific data,. The reason is that it apparently never sampled and analyzed the material in any of its Iraq or Afghan burn pits. The U.S. military is now simply covering them all over with dirt as the U.S. prepares to withdraw from Iraq and begins to draw down in Afghanistan.

In summary, there has been no competent assessment of the long-term environmental harm to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan from the abandonment of such a massive volume of toxic waste. The Pentagon has likewise abandoned its own solders, sailors, marines and airmen whom it poisoned and injured. Until all the burn pits are excavated and sampled, there is no way to determine the full makeup of the toxic soup of pollutants that U.S. military personnel were exposed to.

This “pollute and run” policy should not be permitted. If invading countries had to clean up and restore the country sides they invaded and damaged, and if they had to treat and care for all those they injured, perhaps they might in the future think twice before launching such wars.

Sources for Further Reading:

Houston Chronicle - February 7, 2010 - “GIs tell of horror from burn pits”

Los Angeles Times - February 18, 2010 - “Veterans speak out against burn pits”

Salem News - March 29, 2010 - “Sick Veterans Sue KBR Over Iraq and Afghanistan Burn Pits”

Kabul Press? - April 25, 2010 - “EXCLUSIVE REPORT: American Military Creating an Environmental Disaster in Afghan Countryside” (Part 1 of 3)

Kabul Press - May 2, 2010 - EXCLUSIVE REPORT: American Military Burn Pits Pollute Afghan Countryside (Part 2 of 3)

Kabul Press - May 4, 2010 - EXCLUSIVE REPORT: American Military Burn Pits Pose Risk to Future Generations of Afghans (Part 3 of 3).

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