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Lawmakers to hold news briefing on burn pits

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June 11, 2009

By Kelly Kennedy (Military Times)

Sponsors of a bill aimed at more tightly regulating the use of open-air burn pits for waste disposal in Iraq and Afghanistan will hold a news conference Thursday to highlight the effects on troops of possible exposure to toxins from burn-pit smoke.

“There is mounting evidence that veterans may be ill — and some may have actually died — as a result of exposure to dangerous toxins produced by the pits,” Rep. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y., said in a statement. Bishop co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H.

The news conference will feature veterans who say they were sickened by the plumes, as well as an epidemiologist who specializes in the health risks associated with exposure to burn pits, which are used at bases throughout Iraq and Afghanistan.

The legislation, HR 2419, prohibits building burn pits on new bases that military officials know will exist for more than six months, and it calls for tracking all troops exposed to the black plumes that come from the pits.

Congressional interest in the issue follows an investigative series by Military Times that showed military environmental officials were concerned about the pits, into which everything from petroleum products to body parts have been burned.

At one time on Joint Base Balad, the largest U.S. installation in Iraq, 90,000 plastic water bottles per day were being burned, leading to the possibility of dioxin exposure — the same chemical that caused concern for veterans exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam. DoD: No long-term health issues

The Defense Department maintains that there are no known long-term health effects due to exposure from burn pits. In fact, the Magazine of Force Health Protection and Readiness recently published a reiteration of that position: “Some service members at [Joint Base Balad] and elsewhere who had contact with this type of smoke may have experienced relatively mild and temporary conditions such as irritated eye and nasal passages or a cough. For the vast majority of individuals, these types of symptoms are similar to those experienced after breathing any type of smoke.”

The article goes on to say that firefighters and rescue personnel have similar symptoms. However, when firefighters at Joint Base Balad had to work with the burn pits, they wore protective self-contained breathing apparatus, according to a firefighter who was there.

The article acknowledges that hazardous materials may have been burned early in the wars, before proper disposal methods were brought on line, but it said troops should not worry: “In order for these materials to have resulted in illnesses, their byproducts would have had to been breathed at quite high levels over prolonged periods, which, based on the amounts of these materials that may have been burned, is unlikely.”

The article talks about testing done at Balad, also reported by Military Times, that shows the levels of toxins is acceptable, and mentions that 16,000 air, water and soil samples have been analyzed in Iraq. But it does not mention the results of those tests: The report says particulate levels in the air in Southwest Asia are six to eight times as high as recommended limits under military regulations, and 65 of 140 water samples came back with unsafe levels of toxins during testing in 2007.

At Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, military researchers found metals above safety guidelines in 26 air samples, including lead at 12 times safe levels and manganese at 3.5 times safe levels. One sample found acrolein, which was used as a chemical weapon in World War I, at 285 times recommended levels. Almost 400 say they’re ill

So far, 398 people have contacted Disabled American Veterans to say they believe they are sick from exposure to the burn pits. Of those, about 80 have cancer, mostly leukemia, lymphoma or brain cancer; about 200 have pulmonary disorders such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, chronic coughs, sleep apnea or allergy-like symptoms; and others suffer headaches and chronic fatigue. One woman interviewed by Military Times after she developed leukemia while at Joint Base Balad has since died.

Mortality rates published by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center show that from 2001 to 2008, respiratory and chest symptoms among all active-duty members increased from about 56,000 cases to 75,000 cases; COPD cases increased from 13,500 to 24,500; and chronic sinusitis cases increased from about 10,000 to 31,500.

While leukemia and lymphoma rates have remained fairly stable, the number of troops with neoplasms — tumors — has nearly doubled since 2001.

Tech. Sgt. Anthony Roles, who served in the Air Force for 12 years, is one of the veterans who will attend the news conference. He served at Joint Base Balad from 2003 to 2004, and said walking to his housing area was like “walking through a thick fog, only it was smoke.”

The former weather forecaster said that in the winter, northeast winds blew the smoke right over the base housing area, and an inversion in the local weather system created a cap that didn’t let anything rise up, similar to a closed flue in a fireplace.

“We went out into the burn pits ourselves with our trash,” he said. “We didn’t think anything of it.”

Within a month, he began getting headaches. Soon after, he was diagnosed with too many platelets in his blood, a condition that can leave a person feeling sluggish. He was told to take a baby aspirin every day and he would be fine.

A year and a half later, while working as a recruiter in Florida, he was diagnosed with polycythemia, a blood disorder in which his bone marrow produces too many red blood cells, a rare disease that usually affects people older than 60. Roles is 32.

“I feel slow,” he said. “My hands and feet sting and itch all the time. If I get up at 6 a.m., by 9 I feel like I’ve been up for 24 hours.”

And he believes he knows what caused the disease, which occurs after a single cell in the bone marrow mutates and, according to the Mayo Clinic, normally develops very slowly: “I’m convinced it was the burn pits because I had tests before I left and I was fine,” he said.

His doctor told him his life expectancy is five to 10 years because his thick blood eventually would clog his circulatory system. When a nurse extracts his blood for testing, it clots up inside the needle. He has already had a heart attack.

“We move along every day like it’s the last,” said Roles, who is married with three children. “We do the best we can.”

Jill Wilkins, whose husband, Air Force Maj. Kevin Wilkins, died five days after realizing he had a brain tumor he suspected was caused by lengthy exposure to burn-pit smoke, is paying for Roles to travel to Washington, D.C., for the news conference.

In his statement, Bishop noted that to date, the Defense Department “has maintained that burn pits pose no long-term health risks. However, Agent Orange and Persian Gulf syndrome have taught us that we must be vigilant in monitoring and treating our veterans long after they have returned from the battlefield.”

Disabled American Veterans has sent out a letter asking its members to contact their representatives to urge them to cosponsor the bill.

“In the recent months since this issue has become public, hundreds of current and former service members have contacted the DAV explaining how thick and noxious the resulting fumes were,” reads the letter. “Many have relayed to us that their living and working environments were intolerable to such a degree as to cause uncontrollable coughing so intense that it led to vomiting, or vomiting so hard to nearly produce loss of consciousness.”

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and Veterans for Common Sense have also come out in favor of the bill.

The news conference will begin at 11 a.m. Thursday at the House Triangle outside the Capitol Building.

Bishop’s office has also created an information site about the burn pits.

Thanks to Kelly Kennedy and the Military Times for covering this material. Copyright remains with the aforementioned.

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