Report cites low health risk from burn pits
By Kelly Kennedy – Staff writer
Posted : Wednesday Dec 24, 2008 16:46:03 EST
The Army staff sergeant began running long distances when she was 7 years old. A born overachiever, she made E-6 in eight years in her job as a truck driver. She ran six-minute miles and is air-assault qualified.
Then she went to Joint Base Balad in Iraq.
“I got so sick I was medevacked out,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Now I can hardly walk without using an inhaler. I’m losing my career to asthma.”
At Balad, she and two other soldiers worked the night shift as convoy supervisors for the KBR contractors who brought garbage to be dumped in the base’s open-air burn pit.
“By midnight, the smoke was so bad you couldn’t see,” she said.
Both of the other soldiers on her shift have also been diagnosed with asthma.
Though military officials say there are no known long-term effects from exposure to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 100 service members have come forward to Military Times and Disabled American Veterans with strikingly similar symptoms: chronic bronchitis, asthma, sleep apnea, chronic coughs and allergy-like symptoms. Several also have cited heart problems, lymphoma and leukemia.
“A lot of soldiers in my old unit have asthma and bronchitis,” said the staff sergeant, who served in Iraq in 2005. “I lived 50 feet from the burn pit. I used to wake up in the middle of the night choking on it.”
She also has been diagnosed with heart problems. “I’ve seen four or five cardiologists, but no one can tell me what’s wrong with my heart,” she said.
The U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine issued a paper entitled “Just the Facts” in December about the Balad burn pit.
It states that sampling in 2004, 2005 and 2006 found “occasional presence” of dioxins, the chemical in Agent Orange; polyaromatic hydrocarbons, or benzene, known to cause leukemia; and volatile organic compounds, some that are known or suspected to cause cancer in humans, as well as throat and eye irritations.
Those sampling reports are classified, according to the center.
But “the potential short- and long-term risks were estimated to be low due to the infrequent detections of these chemicals,” the paper states. “Based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidance, long-term health effects are not expected to occur from breathing the smoke” at Joint Base Balad.
Kerry Baker, legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, isn’t buying it.
“It seems like most of these cases, anecdotally, are people who were exposed heavily to the burn pits and they got sick quickly,” he said, referring to the troops who have contacted DAV and Military Times. “There must be some areas that take a hit much harder than others. Everything seems to be pointing opposite to what the Defense Department is saying.”
He said he also found 22 service members who have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan who had cancer – half of whom have died.
Oddly, several had cancers that most people survive.
“You’re getting these young guys who are strong and they can’t fight non-life-threatening forms of cancer,” he said.
Though he said the problems could come from a combination of exposures, many of the people who have contacted him worked directly in the draft of the burn pit plume.
Baker is building a database of troops who say the burn pit sickened them. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com.
He said he would like to see the Department of Veterans Affairs notify doctors that veterans have been exposed to chemicals from fires in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as look for trends that could make such exposure presumptive evidence for some illnesses.
The “Just the Facts” paper says data from a report for air samples taken in 2007 show particulate matter levels higher than military recommendations in about 50 of the 60 samples from Balad. Most are at least two times allowable rates, but several are at six times allowable rates.
Craig Postlewaite, a senior force health protection analyst for the Pentagon, told Military Times there are no known long-term effects from particulate matter.
The Defense Health Board sent a letter in June to S. Ward Cascells, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, asking the Pentagon:
• To rework its 2007 analysis to state that the sampling at Balad constituted a screening that would determine the need for more assessment, and that it was not a comprehensive risk assessment in itself.
• To acknowledge that “the relationship between locations and personnel-level exposure is not defined.”
• To acknowledge that the report offers “a relatively large level of uncertainty regarding actual personnel exposure levels and health risks” and the number of samples was “relatively small.”
The board also identified other areas where “further clarification, analysis or investigation was needed,” the letter states.