Lawmakers seek details of burn pit data
By Kelly Kennedy - Staff writer
Posted : Tuesday Mar 31, 2009 16:54:07 EDT
Troops exposed to fumes from open-air burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan face “significant danger,” according to independent scientists hired by Congress to look at a study conducted by the military on the burn pit at Joint Base Balad, the largest U.S. facility in Iraq.
“Independent scientists who have reviewed the joint study of Balad Air Base have informed us that there is a significant danger that veterans may become ill as a result of exposure to fumes emanating from such burn pits,” states a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates signed and sent by eight lawmakers on March 30. “They also noted that the underlying data supporting the study was not included and that it will be difficult to ascertain the potential health care implications of exposure to the fumes without this data.”
The letter asks Gates to provide that data to Congress and the Government Accountability Office, even if it needs to be reviewed in a classified setting.
The letter is signed by Sens. Russ Feingold, D-Wis.; Evan Bayh, D-Ind; and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; and Reps. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y.; Steve Cohen, D-Tenn.; John Hall, D-N.Y.; Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y.; and Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H.
“We are concerned that veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan may be ill, and some may have actually died, as a result of exposure to dangerous toxins produced by burn pits used to destroy waste,” the letter states. “The Military Times reports that scores of returning veterans who were exposed to burn pits display similar symptoms: chronic bronchitis, asthma, sleep apnea, chronic coughs and allergy-like symptoms. Several also have cited heart problems, lymphoma and leukemia.”
Lawmakers also have sent letters to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Erik Shinseki, who said VA is working with the Defense Department to connect troop exposure data with possible ailments; and to Gen. David Petraeus, chief of U.S. Central Command, asking that the burn pits be monitored for safety.
Petraeus said the military would monitor the pits, and that incinerators are being added to reduce exposure to chemicals, such as dioxins, benzene and volatile organic compounds known to cause cancer.
More than 150 veterans have contacted Military Times with illnesses and ailments that they believe are related to the burn pits, which have been used to burn everything from plastic bottles to petroleum products to medical waste. In some small locations — such as combat outposts with only a couple of hundred people — trash has been dumped and burned within feet of troops’ living quarters.
At Balad, as much as 240 tons of waste was burned every day in monstrous pits that created large plumes of black smoke. Service members say their living quarters were often filled with smoke and even ash, though Air Force officials say Balad now has two incinerators to handle the waste.
Kerry Baker, Disabled American Veterans’ assistant national legislative director, has been gathering a database of those sick combat vets, and said he now has 182 people on his list. Of those, 48 have developed lymphoma, leukemia or another form of cancer; 55 have pulmonary disorders including asthma and asthma-like symptoms; and others report multiple sclerosis, sleep apnea and heart problems. At least 16 veterans in the database have died, Baker said.
Defense officials have said there are no known long-term health effects due to burn-pit exposure, but lawmakers say the issue deserves closer scrutiny.
“Our experience with treating illnesses caused by Agent Orange and Gulf War Illness taught us that we must be vigilant in monitoring and treating our veterans long after they have returned from the battlefield,” the letter states. “Although the Department of Defense currently maintains that there are no health dangers to troops from exposure to burn pits, we believe it is premature to dismiss concerns raised about burn pits after only a few years.”
Will Jenkins, a spokesman for Rep. Tim Bishop, also has created a Web site for people who would like more information about the burn pits, including the studies released by the military. People may also share their burn pit stories at the site, learn how to seek help, or read media accounts of the burn pits.
Read more on the web
• VA to gather data on alleged burn-pit victims
• Burn pit at Balad raises health concerns
• Possible contaminants and their potential effects
• Burn pit fallout
• Senator wants answers on dangers of burn pits
• Troops air complaints about burn pits
What the troops say
Pentagon must recognize burn-pit health hazards
Monday, April 13, 2009
Lawmakers seek details of burn pit data