Anthony Roles recalls flying into Balad Air Base in the middle of the night to begin his deployment as an active-duty Air Force weather forecaster. His first morning on the ground in Iraq, "there was a haze and a smell—and you could see smoke coming up," Roles remembers. It was rising from a pit of waste where plumes—brown one morning, green the next—would climb two or three stories high as jet fuel kept some 240 tons of trash a day burning. When soldiers cleared their throats and blew their noses, out came what they called "the Balad crud."
Three or four times a week, Roles, then a 26-year-old tech sergeant, took his unit's garbage to the burn pit, driving past tens of thousands of smoldering plastic water bottles and Styrofoam cups. There was more eyebrow-raising refuse as well. "I saw some pretty disturbing stuff," Roles says, including "arms and feet and legs and hands from amputees." There were syringes, too, and toxic chemical waste. The prevailing air currents, he adds, acted "like Saran Wrap that didn't allow anything to rise above it."
Not long after he arrived, Roles came down with bronchitis and sinus problems. He'd never had such maladies before, but it wasn't "too bad" and he shrugged it off. A month after he returned from Iraq in March 2004, however, he began getting severe headaches. "I couldn't figure out what in the world was going on." Tests showed that Roles's blood platelet levels were low, which indicated his body might be destroying them—a symptom of leukemia. The Air Force flew Roles to the Mayo Clinic, where a physician specializing in blood diseases immediately asked if he had been to Iraq and had been exposed to toxic chemicals there. "He told me that's a good chance that's where I got it from," says Roles, who had not suspected that the burn pits might be playing a role in his poor health. He was diagnosed with thrombocythemia, a rare condition often associated with exposure to toxins. His treatment required him to take a chemotherapy pill daily, which carries with it risk of strokes and heart attacks. At age 30, Roles had a heart attack. Shortly afterward, the Air Force medically retired him, ending 12 years of service.
Air study. Burn pits like the one at Balad are a source of controversy for the U.S. military. Growing numbers of soldiers are reporting health conditions that they attribute to the smoke they inhaled during their deployments, particularly early in the war, when the military torched everything from toxic materials to human and medical waste in open-air fields. But the Pentagon and military health review boards have been slow to acknowledge that the burn pits have any long-term health effects on troops, veterans groups say. An Army study of the air quality released last summer concluded that while the levels of particulate matter that the pits generate are "extraordinarily high" by U.S. standards, no "statistically significant" associations between this fact and cardiovascular or respiratory health conditions were found. The Pentagon's acting director for force health protection and readiness, R. Craig Postlewaite, told lawmakers at an October hearing, "In the vast majority of cases, these samples indicate U.S. personnel are not experiencing any exposures that would put their long-term health at risk."
These findings were not greeted warmly by groups like the Disabled American Veterans, which represents some 400 troops who have reported leukemia, brain tumors, and respiratory problems—and have filed a classaction lawsuit against KBR, the defense contractor that administered the burn pits. Democratic Reps. Tim Bishop of New York and Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire then asked the Government Accountability Office to review the Army study's findings for "significant methodological problems."
And the GAO found them. The Army study, congressional critics point out, did not test for the presence of smaller particulate matter, which is more likely to cause health problems. In addition, the samples were collected during the rainy season in Iraq, when such matter is less prevalent. And the study tested in only one location, even though burn pits remain widespread at bases throughout Iraq and Afghanistan.
Congress passed legislation in October prohibiting the burning of hazardous materials and medical waste in the pits, unless the secretary of defense grants a special exemption. The law mandates that the Pentagon create a plan for alternative waste disposal and test soldiers who may have been exposed. "We need to own up if we've made a mistake," says Shea-Porter. The measure also requires monitoring of burn pit health risks, including a study of the effects of smoldering plastics.