Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Lawmakers call for action on burn pits

Lawmakers call for action on burn pits

By Kelly Kennedy - Staff writer
Posted : Wednesday Feb 4, 2009 9:43:47 EST

Seven members of Congress have added their names to a growing list of legislators concerned about service members who say burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan have made them sick.

“It has come to our attention that a growing number of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are becoming sick and dying from what appears to be overexposure to dangerous toxins produced by burn pits used to destroy waste,” reads a letter from Rep. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y., to Eric Shinseki, the new secretary of veterans affairs. “Further conversations with other veterans have revealed that the armed forces have not investigated this threat adequately.”

Bishop’s office sent the letter Monday. It was also signed by Reps. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore.; Bill Delahunt, D-Mass.; Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y.; Keith Ellison, D-Minn.; Sander Levin, D-Mich.; and Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa.

Congress first heard about the issue, the letter states, after a series of stories came out in Military Times showing that service members were exposed to everything from burning petroleum products to plastics to batteries in burn pits used to dispose of waste at every base in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tests showed the fires released dioxins, benzene and volatile organic compounds, including substances known to cause cancer. So far, 150 people have contacted Disabled American Veterans to say they are sick, and they believe the burn pits caused their ailments.

Of those 150, about 30 have lymphoma and leukemia. Other reported conditions include asthma, bronchitis, sleep apnea, chronic coughs, allergy-like symptoms and heart problems.

“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 to ensure that this generation of service members does not face the same difficulties,” the letter states.

The lawmakers ask Shinseki to use the Gulf War Advisory Committee to “investigate the combined effect of sand, burn pits, dioxins, benzene and volatile organic compounds” on veterans. They also want VA to compile statistics for the toxin levels in the blood of those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan compared to those who have not.

And they ask that VA notify its doctors that “veterans have been exposed to chemicals from fires in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Meanwhile, Burke O’Neil LLC, a Washington, D.C., law firm that has filed a class-action lawsuit against defense contractor Kellogg, Brown & Root LLC for improperly disposing of waste and insufficiently sanitizing water supplies for U.S. troops in Iraq, has invited the 150 ill service members to join the suit, said Kerry Baker, DAV’s assistant legislative director.

So far, about 30 have done so, according to Elizabeth Burke, a lawyer with the firm, which plans to file its suit soon.

Burke O’Neil also filed a third class-action suit in Montgomery County, Md., dated Jan. 21, focusing on the way KBR disposed of waste in burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan after several people came forward with cancer that they believe came from exposure to the burn pits, Burke said.

The lawsuit states that KBR “illegally burned biohazard materials, hydraulic fluids, lithium batteries and other hazardous materials in the open-air burn pits, causing noxious and unsafe smoke to drift over the base. Defendants burned tires, trucks, munitions boxes, and items containing pesticide residue.”

The suit accuses KBR of negligence, battery, nuisance, negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, product liability, willful and wanton conduct, negligent hiring, breach of duty to warn, and medical monitoring.

It asks for compensation for physical injuries, emotional distress, fear of future disease, and need for continued medical treatment and monitoring. It also asks that KBR be stripped of all revenue for the contracts the plaintiffs say the company violated.

Four plaintiffs have chronic respiratory illnesses, one has “weeping lesions” on his arms and feet, one has gastrointestinal illness, and one has reactive airways disease.

Baker is compiling a list of service members and veterans who believe they were exposed to the burn pits to make a case that VA should compensate people for their illnesses. His e-mail address is

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