Military Veterans Worry About Exposure to Toxic Waste

Some argue burn pits on military bases overseas pose a risk to soldiers.

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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.

Combat waste. The Pentagon points out that there are considerable constraints on a military at war, particularly in the early stages of an invasion and at small outposts. "This is really the first major deployment that we've had in recent memory to a location that doesn't have some sort of infrastructure to take care of the waste," says Postlewaite. "The engineers really scratched their heads when all of this started—the only feasible and viable option to get rid of this when it started was to burn it. If you allow trash to stand, it creates its own health risks." There are also security risks that come with disposing of waste off-base. "You're in the middle of a serious conflict, and the environment really takes a back seat to making sure your soldiers are safe from bullets and bombs," says David Mosher, a senior policy analyst with the Rand Corp. who cowrote a 2008 report for the Army on wartime environmental considerations.

That said, the military could have done more to mitigate the environmental impact of wartime operations, Mosher adds. Although the Army has produced "lessons learned" reports after previous conflicts, commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan didn't make use of them, he says. "They invented as they went along."

Roles says that there was no reason why the burn pit at Balad, upwind of most of the base, could not have been placed downwind. "That would have made a lot more sense," he says. "There was a lot of room on the other side of the base." Instead, prevailing easterly winds "would push all of that smoke right over top of where everyone was living."

As a result of the Rand study, the Army launched the Green Warrior Initiative to investigate the role of environmental considerations in counterinsurgency operations. And on the heels of the new law, Postlewaite's office has re-evaluated its stance, allowing that it is "plausible that some people may be affected in a longer-term way than we had acknowledged," he says. "Breathing the smoke is not ideal, either from a quality of life standpoint or from a longer-term health standpoint." Postlewaite adds, "We certainly acknowledge that breathing smoke can be responsible for acute health effects—irritation of the eyes, sore throats, coughing. And some of those coughs we know tend to last a while." But "­whether any of these effects are chronic and long-lasting," he says, remains to be seen. "We've left the book open and continue to leave it open in terms of whether there are health impacts on our people."

Postlewaite is more inclined to emphasize the possible link between exposure to burn pits and pre-existing conditions. There is a "fairly high prevalence" of tobacco smoking by soldiers in theater. "Would that increase the risk?" he asks. That question, he says, raises "enough uncertainty" for the Pentagon to continue to investigate.

In the meantime, the military is replacing burn pits with incinerators, which are safer for the troops as well as for the Iraqi and Afghan civilians who live around the bases. There are four incinerators now at Balad and 23 throughout Iraq. In Afghanistan, there are 10, with 74 planned for installation, including some that will be transferred from Iraq.

Roles, who has never smoked, remains convinced that his exposure to the Balad burn pit brought on his condition. "I was perfectly healthy before," he says. "Now I have a hard time breathing all the time." With his reduced respiratory capacity, "It's like trying to put 800 pounds of water pressure down a water hose." In his current job at the Department of Veterans Affairs,, Roles says he is encountering growing numbers of war veterans with ailments like his. Even as he tries to provide them with help and information, he and his wife struggle with how to break the news of his deteriorating health to his three children, ages 3 to 12. "The thought of what's going to happen to me," Roles says, his voice trailing off. "We don't discuss it with the kids."