Thousands of soldiers have been exposed to the toxic smoke of burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some subsequently have become ill. Others, like Army Sgt. Bill McKenna, have died.
Although there has been no direct link between the smoke inhaled by the soldiers and their illnesses, it is probable that breathing in the smoke exacerbated or caused diseases such as the cancer that killed McKenna.
That is why his widow, Dina, and the group Burn Pits 360 and veterans organizations are lobbying politicians to create a registry for the tens of thousands of service members they believe are at risk.
Last week, legislation was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to establish the registry to periodically notify soldiers of developments associated with burn pit exposure, including recommendations regarding the most effective medical treatments. A companion bill will be introduced later in the Senate. We urge lawmakers to support these efforts.
Chances of passage may have dimmed somewhat, however, with the release of a lengthy report by the Institute of Medicine focusing on military personnel serving at Joint Base Balad in Iraq. Top health and environmental scientists who participated in the study could not draw a direct link between the burn pits and health problems. They said other factors, such as constant exposure to jet exhaust, dust and pollution typically found in Iraq, may have been the cause of the sicknesses ascribed to burn pits.
But as the Tribune's Howard Altman reported Wednesday, Joint Base Balad used a 10-acre pit to burn several hundred tons of waste daily, including human excrement, body parts, plastic and Humvee parts, using jet fuel as an accelerant. While a conclusive link may not have been made yet, it is certain that some toxins found in the smoke, such as dioxin, are harmful, which is why the scientists recommended Congress continue to follow the health of those exposed to the smoke.
"We are not skeptical about reports of illness related to burn pits," said John Balmes, part of the team that conducted the institute's review. "But … Balad was bad, a polluted environment. How much the burn pit emission contributed to the health problems compared to the problem of pollution is a lot unclear."
Still, a USA Today analysis of Defense Department morbidity reports showed that cardiovascular cases of active-duty soldiers increased from 65,520 in 2001 to 91,013 in 2010.
Similarly, neurologic conditions increased from 9,688 to 32,667 during the same timeframe. The increase, the newspaper reported, "led doctors, researchers and environmental experts, both civilian and military, to blame open burn pits in Iraq."
The Defense Department closed its last burn pit in Iraq last December, but it still operates 100 small pits in Afghanistan. The department plans to replace them with incinerators, but a freeze on construction projects is holding that up.
The lesson here is that military shortcuts threaten soldiers' lives. Congress should establish a registry to help those exposed to burn pit smoke and push the Defense Department to shut down the remaining open-air pits.