Deployed troops face health risks through waste disposal process

When operating in a desert landscape, the military faces many problems in the safe disposal of wastes. At the moment, the concern is that troops in Iraq and Afghanistan can develop rare diseases while disposing of waste.

Anthony Roles, a 12-year veteran of the Air Force, told U.S News & World Report that he developed Polycythemia Vera, a very rare and incurable form of cancer, from frequently working around burn pits. Burn pits are open cavities of land where waste is burned. As of February 2011, 84 open burn pits operate in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“There is no doubt in my mind that these problems started with the burn pits at Balad AFB,” Roles said.

Joint Base Balad (called Balad Air Base during Roles service) is about 42 miles north of Baghdad, and is one of the largest airbases in Iraq. When Roles was deployed in Iraq, Balad had more than 20,000 troops. Russell Keith, a paramedic also stationed at Balad, told the L.A Times that he could see the wind blowing because dark green plumes rose from the burn pits, some of which were near base living quarters.

The advocacy group Disabled American Veterans (DAV) has registry of more than 500 veterans that link a present illness directly to the burn pits. Along with DAV, The American Lung Association recommends an end to burn pits in war zones.

Michelle Pierce fought stomach cancer in 2008, then another tumor in her lung. She, like Roles, was in outstanding health before exposure to burn pits.

Sergeant William McKenna attracted national attention in early January when he died of a rare cancer. His death prompted members of Congress to propose the Military Personnel Toxic Exposure Registry Act, which, among other things, requires the Pentagon to track the thousands of troops exposed to burn pits.

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Prior to these voiced concerns, burn pits included everything from medical waste to plastics. Roles said he saw everything from syringes and styrofoam cups to the hands and legs of amputees.  Others recalled computer parts, paints, tires, batteries, bloody gauze, and mattresses. In Balad, jet fuel was the common catalyst. Roles said the whole atmosphere was horrible.

“Like Saran Wrap that didn’t allow anything to rise above it.”

Regulations and guidance about burn pits began in 2009, six years after the Iraq war began. Until 2009, troops in Afghanistan and Iraq were told to burn everything, according to Afghanistan veteran and UAA student Brandon Fall.  Congress was unaware of the issue until hundreds of troops wrote their stories directly to Congress members, or told their story to thousands–like Roles did in June 2010–when he was the topic of a U.S. News & World Report article.

In September 2009, the Government Accountability Office began a 13-month study on waste disposal in Iraqi bases. Their goal was to find what worked and what did not in waste disposal, and to apply that information toward waste disposal in Afghanistan bases. During their investigation, they found that none of the four bases they examined were in compliance with recent regulations.

“The health impacts of burn pit exposure on individuals are not well understood, mainly because the military does not collect required data on emissions or exposures from burn pits,” according the GAO report.

However, on two of the bases, the report mentioned that contractors handled waste management, and that the military has had difficulty re-negotiating old contracts to meet new waste-disposal requirements.

The improvements would require contractors to provide safe disposal mechanisms like incinerators. Contractors have cited logistics and cost for their hesitancy. They also say that the military decides how to operate burn pits.

The military is planning to implement better disposal procedure in Afghanistan. The U.S. Central Command is buying 220 solid-waste incinerators for trash disposal in Afghanistan.

Other efforts by the military include the mandatory use of masks or respirators when near burn pits. On Feb. 9, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said the policy should be implemented within 60 days.

The Department of Veteran Affairs is still studying the long-term health effects that burn pits had on troops.

“The study will compare the health of 30,000 combat Veterans deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan to 30,000 non-deployed Veterans. The report is due out by summer of 2011…At this time, research has not shown long-term adverse effects from exposure to the burn pits, but VA takes this issue seriously,” the VA website stated.

Lt. Gen. John Allen, the acting commander of Central Command, has written that the military believes there will be no more burn pits in Iraq by December 2011.

The military has been concerned with the safe disposal of chemical wastes since the advent of nuclear weapons. During the cold war, when the U.S. began to deactivate nuclear weapons, the U.S. Army created the Project Manager for Chemical Demilitarization in 1972. Their mission was to safely deconstruct toxic chemical agents. By 1980, the agency expanded to include environmental research, development, and environmental control technology, among other things. That year the organization changed their name to the U.S Army Environmental Command (USAEC).

Also in 1980, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). The bill mandated that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigate contaminated sites throughout the U.S. To deal with this new demand, the EPA formed the Superfund Program, which keeps a list of the nation’s most hazardous sites.

Some of the money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act went to fund these superfund programs. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used some off the money they received from the Recovery Act to clean up hazardous waste sites.

Some of the biggest are in New Jersey. One site in need of recovery is FUSRAP Maywood Superfund Site in Bergen County, New Jersey. The site is 153 acres. From 1916 to 1959 Maywood Chemical Works used the area to process thorium, a radioactive element. The company disposed of waste into pits and manmade lagoons, causing the soil to become radioactive and increasing the possible threat to the highly developed area.

Regarding land that the military is responsible for, there are several contaminated sites at Fort Richardson. In 1994, the post was listed on the CERCLA National Priority List because of known or suspected hazardous chemicals. As of 2008, 75 percent of clean up efforts are complete. However, there are still unacceptable amounts of white phosphorous in the soil at the Eagle River Flats, according to the EPA.

For more information on how the military disposes of waste or to offer comments, visit  This is part 2 of a series that examines the military’s relationship with the environment.