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.
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."
- See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.