J.D. Williams didn’t think much about the smoke cloud that often shrouded his air base in Iraq. Not when it covered everything he owned with black soot or when his wheezing and coughing made it difficult to sleep at night.
“We just went about our business because there was a war going on,” said Williams, a retired chief warrant officer who was responsible for maintaining some 250 aircraft for the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division.
He returned home from that second stint in Iraq in 2006 and subsequently was diagnosed with an irreversible lung disease that his doctor suspects could be related to smoke from one of the hundreds of burn pits that dotted Iraq and Afghanistan during the course of the two wars. The pits were used to burn off the garbage that accumulates at military bases, everything from Styrofoam and metal to paints, solvents, human waste and medical waste.
A new Department of Veterans Affairs registry, mandated by Congress, will be used to try to determine if there is a link between the burn pits and long-term health problems.
Military personnel who were stationed near an open burn pit can sign up. Researchers will use the database to monitor health trends in participants, and the department will alert them to major problems detected.
Over the long term, the findings could make it easier for veterans who served near burn pits to obtain disability payments.
Sixty-three burn pits were still being used in Afghanistan as of Dec. 26; those in Iraq were closed by December 2010. Camps with fewer than 100 people are not required to report the use of a burn pit, so there could be more, but generally much smaller ones. Proponents say the burn pits were so widespread that the large majority of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan could participate in the registry.
In 2009, the military updated its policies on burn pits to prohibit the burning of hazardous materials such as certain medical waste, batteries and tires, and whenever possible, to situate them where the smoke would not blow over work and living quarters.
“When our service members voice concerns about burn pit exposures as well as other health issues, we take our responsibility seriously to investigate these exposures and possible health risks, and to implement any protective measure that are indicated and feasible,” said Defense Department spokeswoman Cynthia O. Smith.
The Pentagon said it is continuing to study the potential hazards of burn pit exposure.
Many supporters of the registry, including Williams, are also participants in a class-action lawsuit filed against KBR Inc., which contracted with the government to operate several of the burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. The plaintiffs are seeking damages for various injuries, emotional distress and fear of future disease. KBR is seeking to dismiss the lawsuits on grounds it deserves the same immunity that prevents the plaintiffs from suing the federal government.
“Every type of waste imaginable was and is burned in these pits,” the plaintiffs said in their lawsuit.
Veterans groups were big backers of the registry, and an often-divided Congress overwhelmingly sides with them.
“You’ve been told since you’re a little kid: `Don’t put a Styrofoam cup in a fire and breathe it because it’s bad for you,” said Ray Kelley, national legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “They do that all day long on these stops along with Lord knows what else, from human waste to all sorts of garbage. You’re inhaling that on a daily basis. It can’t be good for you.”
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