Toxic exposures impact Iraq, Afghanistan veterans, families and survivors
(Click on the images below to find out how the Burn Pits affected the lives of these veterans, families and survivors)
October 28, 2010
In a 2006 memorandum to the Pentagon, Air Force Lt. Col. Darrin Curtis, who was in charge of assessing environmental health hazards at Balad Air Base in Iraq, raised serious concerns about toxic exposures from burn pits.
The letter, which was signed by Lt. Col. James R. Elliott, the Air Force’s chief medical officer at Balad, confirmed the environmental dangers that open air burn pits posed to the soldiers and airmen who lived on one of the largest U.S. installations in Iraq.
Smoke from burning plastics, Styrofoam, paper, wood, rubber, waste, metals, chemicals and oils were contaminating the air. Based on studies he conducted on the ground, Curtis cited an “acute health hazard” to troops from the black plumes of smoke the burn pit generated around the clock.
Like many military facilities, the air base at Balad had been captured after the 2003 invasion of Iraq and was used to advance the war effort. At the time military commanders had few options for ridding themselves of the waste their forces generated.
But as the war effort intensified, Balad Air Base and its adjacent Army Logistics Support Area Anaconda, became a hub for personnel, equipment and operations. By 2006, the base had ballooned into a city with 25,000 men and women. Hundreds of thousands of tons of trash were burned daily. Without enough incinerators, smoke from the open air pits smoldered and lingered low to the ground, often cascading over housing areas and giving the base a signature stench.
As the city grew, so did the type of trash it was generating. While considered an “interim solution,” use of the pits at Balad went on for years. “It’s amazing that the burn pit has been able to operate without restrictions over the past few years,” Curtis wrote.
Defense Department documents dated for 2007 indicated that dioxin levels at Balad were 51 times what the military considered acceptable. Similarly, particulate exposure was 50 times higher than was considered acceptable. For people deployed at the base for more than a year, volatile compounds and cancer risks from dioxin exposures were twice as high as acceptable.
“I am a Vietnam War veteran, and when I hear about dioxins, it raises an immediate red flag – especially when we look at the long-term impact that Agent Orange exposure has had on our community,” said National Service Director Garry Augustine. “It makes you wonder if we’re not looking at something much, much bigger."
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