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Leaked Memo Exposes Toxic US 'Burn Pit' in Afghanistan

Another 'Agent Orange scenario'?

- Common Dreams staff

A recently leaked 2011 Army memo obtained by Danger Room reveals startling negligence by US officials regarding 'burn pits', or toxic waste sites at US bases in Afghanistan.

A bulldozer dumps a load of trash into a burn pit just 300 yards from the runway at Bagram Airfield, January 2012. An Army memo from 2011 found the burn pit is associated with "long-term" health effects on soldiers at Bagram. (Photo: U.S. Army) The leaked memo outlines the “long-term adverse health conditions” for troops breathing in toxic air from military trash burning sites. The adverse health affects have previously been hidden from public knowledge; however, the leaked memo states that high concentrations of dust and burned waste from such burn pits can cause “reduced lung function or exacerbated chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, atherosclerosis, or other cardiopulmonary diseases.”

The memo specifically references Bagram airfield's apparently infamous 'burn pit' known by its expansiveness and pungent smell -- a "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," according to Spencer Ackerman at the Danger Room.

The plumes of trash smoke from the 'shit pit' bellow over the base and into the Parwan Province’s "already dust-heavy air".

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) have collected hundreds of anecdotes from vets pertaining to health problems tied to US burn pits, but claim their grievances have been consistently ignored by the Army.

The leaked memo’s notes that at least 40,000 Service Members and contractors' health has been adversely affected by the toxic chemicals permeating the air and that millions more have served in Iraq and Afghanistan near similar burn pits.

The memo, however, does not mention the countless Afghan servicemen and civilians that have also been exposed to the fumes.

The Bagram pit is where US soldiers from the nearby Parwan detention facility incinerated the Koran, leading to days of rioting.

 * * *

Spencer Ackerman/The Danger Room report:

Leaked Memo: Afghan ‘Burn Pit’ Could Wreck Troops’ Hearts, Lungs

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.

“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.”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”. 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”.

A C-130 Hercules transport plane flies through a tower of smoke caused by open burning in a trash pit at Bagram Airfield.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. [...]

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.” [...]

“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.”

For the full report read here.

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