Leaked Memo Exposes Toxic US ‘Burn Pit’ in Afghanistan

(WIRED)   For years, U.S. government agencies have told the public, veterans and Congress that they couldn’t draw any connections between the so-called “burn pits” disposing of trash at the military’s biggest bases and veterans’ respiratory or cardiopulmonary problems. But a 2011 Army memo obtained by Danger Room flat-out stated that the burn pit at one of Afghanistan’s largest bases poses “long-term adverse health conditions” to troops breathing the air there.

The unclassified memo (.jpg), dated April 15, 2011, stated that high concentrations of dust and burned waste present at Bagram Airfield for most of the war are likely to impact veterans’ health for the rest of their lives. “The long term health risk” from breathing in Bagram’s particulate-rich air include “reduced lung function or exacerbated chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, atherosclerosis, or other cardiopulmonary diseases.” Service members may not necessarily “acquire adverse long term pulmonary or heart conditions,” but “the risk for such is increased.”

The cause of the health hazards are given the anodyne names Particulate Matter 10 and Particulate Matter 2.5, a reference to the size in micrometers of the particles’ diameter. Service personnel deployed to Bagram know them by more colloquial names: dust, trash and even feces — all of which are incinerated in “a burn pit” on the base, the memo says, as has been standard practice in Iraq and Afghanistan for a decade.

Accordingly, the health risks were not limited to troops serving at Bagram in 2011, the memo states. The health hazards are an assessment of “air samples taken over approximately the last eight years” at the base.

The memo’s findings contradict years of U.S. military assurances that the burn pits are no big deal. An Army memo from 2008 about the burn pit at Iraq’s giant Balad air base, titled, “Just The Facts,” found “no significant short- or long-term health risks and no elevated cancer risks are likely among personnel” (.pdf). A 2004 fact sheet from the Pentagon’s deployment health library — and still available on its website — informed troops that the high particulate matter in the air at Bagram “should not cause any long-term health effects.” More recently, in October 2010, a Pentagon epidemiological study found “for nearly all health outcomes measured, the incidence for those health outcomes studied among personnel assigned to locations with documented burn pits and who had returned from deployment, was either lower than, or about the same as, those who had never deployed” (.pdf).

Over the years, thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have experienced respiratory and cardiopulmonary problems that they associate with their service. Some have sued military contractors for exposing them to unsafe conditions. For months, Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) has urged the military to create a database of vets suffering neurological or respiratory afflictions, a move that’s winding through the legislative process. But the military has argued it doesn’t have sufficient evidence to associate environmental conditions on the battlefield with long-term health risks — and it argued that months after this memo is dated.

“As recently as April, in correspondence with the Defense Department and in discussions with my staff, the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs both continued to maintain that research has not shown any long-term health consequences due to burn pits,” Akin tells Danger Room. “They also maintained that remaining burn pits in Afghanistan were away from military populations to reduce exposure. It is disturbing to discover that at least at Bagram the military concluded that burn pits posed a serious health risk.”

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) has collected “hundreds” of anecdotes from vets complaining of health problems connected to serving near burn pits. “It’s good to see someone in the military is acknowledging there are going to be long-term problems with burn pits, but it’s disturbing that this memo is more than a year old and it doesn’t seem like the military has done anything about it,” says Tom Tarantino, IAVA’s deputy policy director, who deployed to Iraq in 2005 as an Army captain. “I lived next to a burn pit for six months at Abu Ghraib. You can’t tell me that was OK. That was pretty nasty. While I was there everyone was hacking up weird shit.”

Any visitor to the sprawling Bagram airfield knows the burn pit — if not by sight, then by smell. It’s an acrid, smoldering barbecue of trash, from busted furniture to human waste, usually manned by Afghan employees who cover their noses and mouths with medical breathing masks. Plumes of aerosolized refuse emerge from what troops refer to as “The Shit Pit,” mingle with Parwan Province’s already dust-heavy air, and sweep over the base. In February, that was where soldiers at the nearby Parwan detention facility accidentally incinerated the Koran.

At the time of the memo’s issuance, it noted that the affected population on the base contemporaneously was “40,000 Service Members and contractors.” Hundreds of thousands have cycled through the giant base since the U.S. seized it in 2001. Bagram is a major transit and logistics hub for the Afghanistan war, and one of the first bases the U.S. took and continuously operated during the war. Millions more have served in Iraq and Afghanistan near similar burn pits.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, studies conducted on the effects of breathing in Particulate Matter 10 and 2.5 have determined “a significant association between exposure to fine particles and premature mortality.” The Army memo reports that Bagram’s air had twice the amount of Particulate Matter 10 than the federal National Ambient Air Quality Standard, and more than three times the amount of Particulate Matter 2.5 as the standard.

Burn pits remain in use across Afghanistan. And although a study by the Institute of Medicine and sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs found last October that there is insufficient data to correlate those pits with health risks, troops’ cardiovascular problems are clearly on the rise: There were 91,013 cases reported in 2010, up sharply from 65,520 in 2001. A 2010 study found half of a small sample of soldiers who struggled to run two miles had undiagnosed bronchiolitis. Hundreds of troops have sued the pits’ contractor operators after experiencing chest pains, asthma and migraines. For years, the U.S. government has pled ignorance about the causes of those veterans’ ailments. And unless the military formally acknowledges that the burn pits pose a long-term health risk, it will be difficult for veterans to receive long-term health care for associated respiratory and cardiopulminary ailments from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“The acknowledgement that air-sampling data is now indicating that burn pits may pose a risk of chronic illness to our servicemen and women validates the need for the national burn pit registry that I have proposed,” Akin says. Tarantino backs him up: “We don’t want another Agent Orange scenario, where it takes 40 years for the military to admit the stuff was bad and then has to spend all this effort tracking down affected servicemembers.”

The U.S. Army and the NATO military command in charge of the Afghanistan war did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Even casual visitors to Bagram know that the air is a menace. Within days of my most recent reporting trip there, in August 2010, I developed a disgusting, productive cough that kept me from sleeping comfortably. Airmen and soldiers joked with me about catching “Bagram Lung.”

But for at least a year, the U.S. military has known that “Bagram Lung” won’t stay at Bagram. There’s a significant chance that it will plague a generation of Afghanistan veterans for the rest of their lives.


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