The 'Burn Pits' Of Iraq And Afghanistan

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At bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military disposes of trash in about 80 giant "burn pits." During the early days of the wars, everything was tossed into these burn pits — including batteries and even amputated limbs — creating a toxic smoke that soldiers and health officials say leads to respiratory problems. Guy Raz talks to reporter Kelly Kennedy, who's been covering the story for the Military Times.

GUY RAZ, host:

U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan produce hundreds of tons of trash every day. And much of that waste is disposed using open-air burn pits. They're massive holes where the garbage is dumped in and set on fire.

Now, there are about 80 of them still in operation in Iraq and Afghanistan, and these burn pits produce plumes of smoke that can be inhaled by troops living as far as a mile away.

Now, in the past few years, more and more service members who were exposed to that smoke have started to report respiratory ailments and other health problems. And it's serious enough that the Pentagon, which originally dismissed those ailments as unrelated, is now re-examining the issue.

Kelly Kennedy has been covering the story for Military Times, and she joins me in the studio now.

Welcome.

Ms. KELLY KENNEDY (Reporter, Military Times): Thank you.

RAZ: Tell us about these burn pits and actually specifically the one at Balad Airbase in central Iraq. What kinds of things were being burned there?

Ms. KENNEDY: The burn pit at Balad was about 10 acres wide. People said they saw things from batteries to unexploded ordinance to just the daily operations of the mess hall. There was tons of cooking oil and Styrofoam, plastic and, you know, the plastic utensils and that sort of thing. So...

RAZ: And actually, human limbs, body parts were being burned there.

Ms. KENNEDY: Right. Their medical incinerators would go out, and they would put amputated body parts from Iraqis or other civilians, not from the troops, in the burn pits.

RAZ: And I should mention this pit was actually closed in October and replaced with something else.

Ms. KENNEDY: With three incinerators.

RAZ: Is there less pollution as a result of using incinerators?

Ms. KENNEDY: There is. When they burn things at a higher temperature, it doesn't give off as many toxins. And then the incinerators cost millions and millions of dollars. So that's it's a cost issue for sure.

RAZ: When did people start coming forward?

Ms. KENNEDY: Well, I actually got some documents send by a whistleblower out of Iraq in the fall of 2008, and we wrote a story, saying, you know, we know in the United States, we don't use burn pits because they're bad for your health.

And as soon as we wrote that first story, we had 100 people come forward within the first week, to Disabled American Veterans and to Military Times, saying we're sick.

RAZ: What were they saying? What did they have?

Ms. KENNEDY: They were having respiratory problems. They were being diagnosed with allergy-like symptoms, but not necessarily allergies, asthma. They were having problems passing their PT tests. They couldn't take enough...

RAZ: This is the physical fitness test.

Ms. KENNEDY: Right, they're failing the run portion. And within probably a month, we had 400 people saying that they were sick. And now, the number is up to more than 500.

RAZ: Have you received any angry reaction or response from the military basically saying, you know, you are giving a voice to people who had prior conditions?

Ms. KENNEDY: I wouldn't say angry. I wouldn't say that I've heard over and over and over again that this group of people may have had pre-existing conditions. And the problem with that is if the military calls it a pre-existing condition, they don't have to pay for disability benefits.

But I mean, a lot of these guys are coming back with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which are things that they were screened for before they joined the military. So I'm not really sure how they could be pre-existing conditions.

RAZ: How many troops do you estimate were potentially exposed to this smoke at the Balad Airbase?

Ms. KENNEDY: Tens of thousands. There are 30,000 people there at any given time.

RAZ: Now, in recent weeks, the Pentagon has sort of acknowledged that this could potentially be a problem and has started to re-examine this issue. What specifically are they doing?

Ms. KENNEDY: They're talking about doing more air samples. They're talking about doing case studies with the troops, so bringing in the guys who say they're sick. I think in this case, you've got President Obama saying we're not going to let this become another Agent Orange. You've got Congress calling for measures to be taken. You've got General Shinseki at the VA saying we're going to take care of these guys. I think there's enough people paying attention and demanding help that it's going to be taken care of.

RAZ: Kelly Kennedy writes for the Military Times, and she's been reporting about the effects of burn pits on troops who've served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kelly Kennedy, thanks for joining us.

Ms. KENNEDY: Thank you for having me.

RAZ: We called the Pentagon for comment on this story, and a spokesman confirmed that a number of troops exposed to burn-pit smoke have reported, quote, "acute health effects like irritated eyes and respiratory problems."

The spokesman said the longer-term health impact is still unclear, and the military is conducting additional studies.

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