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Dangers of Military Burn Pits Highly Disputed

Burn Pit

A burn pit at Balad Air Base, Iraq.

This week, the Democrat & Chronicle published an article taking on the nasty and potentially harmful burn pits that the military and government contractors use to dispose of waste in Iraq and Afghanistan. Countless individuals who worked near the pits say the fumes caused serious illnesses, but so far, little research has been done to disprove or corroborate this theory.

The story focuses on Timothy Lowery, who went to Iraq in 2007 to work as a plumber for contractor KBR. He walked by the pits daily. From the article:

Windy days weren't a respite. If anything, they made things worse, as dust and sand from the surrounding climate would mix with the smoke from the pits. The mixture was in the air all the time, and Lowery often wore goggles to keep it out of his eyes. But there was no crevice on his body or clothing that didn't have some debris in it by day's end, he told family.

Shortly after returning home to Georgia, he was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig ’s disease. Lowery passed away in late 2012 at the age of 51, just a month after marrying his wife.

A study conducted by the Institute of Medicine in 2011 attempted to study the long-term health effects of exposure to burn pits, but results came back inconclusive due to lack of information. A mounting number of returning veterans and contractors, though, feel positive that the pits are the cause of their problems.

Air Force veteran Stacy Fogarty, who returned from Iraq with asthma and other respiratory problems, told the Democrat & Chronicle she thinks burn pits will eventually be tied to many illnesses.

"They're doing the research right now, but my personal prediction is it's going to be like Agent Orange for this era,” [she said.] “We just don't really know what the ramifications are yet."

The Department of Veterans’ Affairs is currently setting up a registry for veterans to document their exposure to burn pit fumes and health concerns, as required by a law signed in January of this year. The effort doesn’t include government contractors working overseas.

A lawsuit against KBR and Halliburton alleging negligent operation of burn pits was filed in Maryland representing several hundred people, but the case was thrown out earlier this year because the judge felt contractors should have the same legal protections as the military. The military cannot be sued for injuries a soldier sustains while in a war zone. Veterans and their families receive military benefits, though, while former contractors do not. The case has been appealed, and oral arguments will begin October 30.

The dangers of burn pits aren’t new to the Project On Government Oversight. Nearly 20 years ago, POGO took on the government over pits being used at Area 51. Multiple workers reported and illness and death due to exposure, but the case went nowhere because the government wouldn’t even admit that Area 51 existed.

Image from the Department of Defense.

By: Avery Kleinman
Beth Daley Impact Fellow, POGO

Avery Kleinman Avery Kleinman is the Beth Daley Impact Fellow for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Public Health and Science

Related Content: Public Health, DOD Oversight

Authors: Avery Kleinman

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