“Although I have no hard data, I believe that the burn pits may be responsible for long-term health problems in many individuals,” Curtis said. “I think we are going to look at a lot of sick people.”
Curtis was asked to testify before the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, which is looking into military contracting issues in the war zones, because he was the author of a December 2006 memo calling for an end to the practice of open-air burn pits, which have been used to burn everything from plastic and petroleum products to medical waste — including amputated limbs.
According to military regulations, open-air burn pits are supposed to be a short-term waste management solution in forward-deployed areas until other systems, such as incinerators, can be brought on line.
In his memo, Curtis wrote: “Burn pits may have been an acceptable practice in the past. However, today’s solid waste contains materials that were not present in the past that can create hazardous compounds. This interim fix should not be years but more in the order of months.”
Curtis said he wrote the memo with the intent of making the case for immediate funding to pay for more incinerators to dispose of the waste rather than continuing to use open pits. Incinerators have been installed on many bases, including Balad, but many open burn pits remain in use in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the time he wrote his memo, Curtis said he believed the burn pits were an acute health hazard and might cause long-term problems, but the only time that military officials in Iraq seemed to do anything about the almost constant smoke was when it interfered with air operations.
“They would have the fires dowsed with water from the fire department to reduce the smoke so air operations would not be affected,” he said.
UPTICK IN BREATHING PROBLEMS
Curtis’ views on potential long-term health problems was supported by Dr. Anthony Szema, chief of the allergy section at the VA Medical Center in Northport, N.Y., who said he is seeing more young patients suffering from breathing problems.
“Until 2004, I mostly saw 80-year-old veterans,” Szema said. “However, from 2004 to present, I have begun seeing young men and men who were previously healthy athletes capable of passing basic training and performing combat operations, Now, these individuals suffer from a variety of respiratory illnesses, including asthma and difficulty breathing during exertion, and are not fit for continued military duty,” he said. “This is an alarming trend since we reported double the rate of new-onset adult asthma diagnoses among Iraq-deployed versus stateside troops.”
He said there are several reasons why the military’s air sampling around burn pits may not have discovered the full range of problems: Officials did not measure extremely fine particles, which create the biggest risk; their tests measured only items being burned at the time, which may not have been the most dangerous items routinely tossed into the pits; and air quality tests were conducted at least partly during Iraq’s rainy season, not in the summer.
“This would be like testing for snow in Albany, N.Y., during the summer,” he said. “Testing will not detect any snow, but this does not mean that it does not snow in Albany.”
Another witness before the committee, a former contract representative for contractor KBR, estimated that there were at least 100 burn pits in Iraq and 30 in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2006, with the biggest being a 60-foot-deep, 25-feet-around pit at Camp Speicher, Iraq, that was built upwind of living quarters “so all smoke traveled downwind to where soldiers were living, which in some cases was as close as one-quarter mile.”
The former KBR employee, Rick Lamberth, said efforts were supposed to be made to minimize smoke exposure, and the burning of some hazardous material was prohibited. But he said he saw some questionable materials get tossed into the pit. “From as close as 10 feet, I saw nuclear, biological and medical waste, including bloody cotton gauze, plastics, tires, petroleum cans, oil and lubricants thrown into the pits,” he said.
“The burn pits emitted plumes of smoke and gave off a foul smell,” Lamberth said. “The ash that came from the pits looked like burned notebook paper and fell like a black, sooty snowfall. The ash covered buildings and the ground like pollen dust.”
L. Russell Keith, a former medic for contract personnel who served two tours in Iraq, said smoke from burn pits was the cause of 30 percent to 40 percent of the patients he saw at clinics. “Sometimes, the smoke was a yellowish color, but the worst was when the smoke would be a dark greenish color,” he said, adding that on those days, he “could expect an increased number of patients, all complaining of burning throats and eyes as well as painful breathing.”
“The thick smoke was especially difficult for those working at the military mail office, directly across the road from the pits,” said Keith, who was in Balad from March 2006 to July 2007.
“Every spot on the base was touched by smoke from the pit. Everyone who served at the base was exposed to the smoke,” Keith said.