Sunday, November 16, 2008

Burn pit fallout

Burn pit fallout

Military official: Situation improving; troops report health complications
By Kelly Kennedy - Staff writer
Posted : Sunday Nov 16, 2008 9:36:08 EST

Disabled American Veterans has issued a call to all service members and veterans who think they may have illnesses related to burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq: Contact DAV so they can collect data and look for trends.

“Anyone out there who thinks they may have had a long-term health effect ... needs to file a complaint” with the Department of Veterans Affairs, said Kerry Baker, DAV’s associate national legislative director.

Noting that it took Vietnam veterans 20 years to gain benefits for exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange, Baker said, “We don’t want to see these guys have to wait 20 years. We want to see Congress act right away.”

He said service members should be alert for respiratory-related problems, such as allergies, sleep apnea, trouble breathing, asthma and lymphocytic leukemia, as well as skin diseases. Of the 300 to 400 disability cases Baker said he has personally reviewed since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, he said 30 percent potentially could be linked to the burn pits. He said he’s amazed by the numbers of troops reporting sleep apnea.

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., also has demanded an investigation in an Oct. 31 letter to Army Gen. David Petraeus, the new chief of U.S. Central Command.

“After years of helping veterans of the Vietnam and Gulf Wars cope with the health effects of toxic battlefields, we have learned that we must take exposures to toxins seriously,” Feingold wrote.

He asked Petraeus to inform him of pending investigations into the “prevalence of health care conditions among those potentially exposed to toxins and particulates,” as well as why more incinerators are not taking the place of burn pits in Iraq.

Pentagon officials say no long-term illnesses are associated with the burn pits. But Military Times has received more than 50 letters from troops responding to a Nov. 3 story, expressing concern about the time they spent near the billowing black clouds emitted by open pits where the military has burned its waste — everything from plastic bottles, which emit dioxins when burned at low temperatures, to petroleum products that emit benzene.

One Air Force bioenvironmental engineer, Lt. Col. Darrin Curtis, was so worried by the chemicals he thought were being released into service members’ living and work spaces at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, that he warned: “In my professional opinion, the known carcinogens and respiratory sensitizers released into the atmosphere by the burn pit present both an acute and chronic health hazard to our troops and the local population.”

Troops say they coughed their way through their deployments; several said respiratory problems and headaches continued long after their deployments ended.

Air Force officials say they had cleaned up the Balad burn pit as of June by using two incinerators and recycling plastic bottles. A report shows that tests in 2007 reflected an “acceptable risk” for cancer-causing and other poisonous toxins from the pit.

“It’s a fantastic before-and-after story,” said Army Capt. Lynn Thompson, waste management officer for Balad from March to October. “The contractor who runs the place is planning to build a tennis court about 100 meters west of the trenches.”

The burn pits are now “trench burners,” which burn hotter and produce less smoke. Still, he said, “Trench burners are no substitute for zero-emission incinerators. They are not intended to be a permanent solution. It is the best we can do with the funding available.”

Thompson said that he personally inspects the trenches every day, that the 147 tons of waste now burned are lumber and contractor-produced garbage, and that the pit no longer takes in paints, plastics, solvents, rubber or unexploded ordnance. Petroleum products are stored as hazardous material, rather than burned as they were in the past. The 90,000 plastic water bottles that used to go into the pit daily now are recycled.

The blackness of the pit’s plume is from dining facility vegetable oil and will be eliminated within two months, Thompson said.

While that’s good news for troops on future deployments, the burn pits in Balad and across Iraq and Afghanistan have burned since the beginning of the wars — initially managed by troops working directly inside the pits to keep them burning.

Service members told Military Times that they have asthma that was diagnosed after they left Balad; that they have allergy-like symptoms for the first time in their lives; that an unusual number of people in their units have developed cancer; that they are failing the runs on their physical fitness tests because of breathing problems; and that their headaches still haven’t gone away months after returning home. One Army officer reported a brain tumor.

“The fact that DoD says it’s safe just makes no sense at all,” Baker said. “Dioxin was used in herbicides in Vietnam. Now it’s a byproduct of the burn pits. But you don’t just have dioxin — you have a list of other chemicals. We need to look at the combined effect of all these chemicals.”

John Bradley, a legislative consultant for DAV, said the group can look to see whether there is a positive association between a deployment and disease, and that can lead VA to presume those diseases were caused by this war.

The proof shouldn’t rest on the veteran, he said.

Army Staff Sgt. Danielle Nienajadlo said her time in Balad led to a nightmare that will haunt her for the rest of her life. As a vehicle mechanic, she spent much of her time at the motor pool near the burn pit. Her living quarters, she said, were within a couple of miles of the pit, and when they ran for physical fitness training, they inhaled the fumes as they passed the plume.

She said the smoke constantly hung over her living quarters. “We were always covered in ash and dirt,” she said. “People got bloody noses and headaches.”

Before she arrived, she had a full physical, including a blood workup, because she wanted to become a helicopter pilot. But upon arrival at Balad, she started coughing and blowing out black stuff.

Soon, she lost her appetite. She felt nauseated, was constantly tired and had trouble breathing. She went to sick call several times, only to be told she might be stressed out.

One night, she stayed up all night with hot sweats and a fever; she went to the emergency room and begged doctors to draw her blood. They did. Her white blood cell count was over the top: She had leukemia.

She believes the burn pit served as a catalyst for her cancer. “I know I got it out there,” she said.

The cancer took over her lungs, and she couldn’t breathe. After a full course of chemotherapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, D.C., where she remains, she said she’s doing better, though she will be checked every three weeks for the next five years to make sure it doesn’t come back.

“I’m in remission,” she said. “I know I’m blessed. If I’d waited another day, I would’ve died.”

• Burn pit letters

• Burn pit at Balad raises health concerns

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