Veterans Say 'Burn Pits' Created Toxic Clouds That Made Them Sick : Parallels During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, open-air pits were used to incinerate refuse including plastics and human waste. Now, U.S. veterans are claiming these burn pits caused chronic ailments.

Veterans Say 'Burn Pits' Created Toxic Clouds That Made Them Sick

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We turn now to a story of some U.S. veterans battling a certain fog of war.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

One of them is Army Reserve Captain LeRoy Torres. In 2008, he returned home to Robstown, Texas, after a year-long tour in Iraq. He went back to work as a state trooper with the Texas Highway Patrol. Torres was an athlete - longtime runner - and so when a suspect fled one morning, he went sprinting after him. But then suddenly he felt this burning in his chest. It got so bad it almost knocked him down.

LEROY TORRES: I was able to catch up, but afterwards, my goodness. I remember just - I laid on the ground. I was so exhausted. And my buddy said, man, what's wrong? And I said, man, I don't know, I just feel really, really tired and my chest feels really tight. I don't know, I just - I couldn't catch my breath.

GREENE: After a lot of medical testing, Torres, at age 39, was diagnosed with a rare disease called constrictive bronchiolitis. Scars in his lungs are blocking the flow of air. He is among a number of growing veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who believe their respiratory ailments are linked to what are known as burn pits. These were acres-wide mounds of waste near military bases that contained everything from batteries to vehicle scraps to amputated body parts.

PATRICIA KIME: What people don't understand is just how large some of these bases really are. I mean, they're small cities. So these are open-air pits where they would light it on fire. And quite often, they ran 24 hours a day.

GREENE: That is Patricia Kime. She's been writing about this for the publication Military Times. And she says one challenge for veterans like Torres is proving that these burn pits are really the cause of their illnesses.

KIME: People have said that it's this toxic mix of tiny, tiny dust particles that are not related to the burn pits - that are just related to the soil and the air in Iraq and Afghanistan - and often has contaminants in it, such as aluminum and iron and titanium - so heavy metals. So the burn pits are the most obvious visual reason to blame, but it could be the dust. It could be chemical exposures. There could be a lot of other issues going on.

GREENE: Last year, Congress ordered the Department of Veterans Affairs to set up the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry. And so far, almost 50,000 veterans have signed up.

KIME: It's not just necessarily burn pits. If you feel like you're sick as a result of deployment, you can sign onto it. And it's supposed to be used to track and to try to get some handle on the extent of the illnesses among this cadre.

GREENE: If there is a clear link made between these burn pits and a lot of these medical conditions, how significant would that be? I mean, what's at stake here?

KIME: If it were turned out to be the burn pits, you know, clearly were linked to these illnesses, it would be unusual because it hasn't happened in these past wars - except Agent Orange is clearly, now, linked to many cancers, and the VA admits that. But it would be very helpful for these veterans because then they could clearly get the medical care they need, and they would get compensation without having to petition VA for disability claims and then have to deal with the process of denials and re-petitioning.

GREENE: Now, there's something else at stake here. One of the companies that operated the burn pits, KBR, is facing lawsuits from veterans across the country. The company that says that if they are held liable, the U.S. military is going to find it hard to find companies to do this kind of work.

KIME: They believe that in future wars, these jobs will continue to be done by contractors. And if contractors are not protected, it will be impossible for America to go into another war.

GREENE: That is Patricia Kime. She covers health and medicine for the publication Military Times. Now, we should add - KBR sent us a statement saying their personnel operated burn pits, quote, "safely and effectively at the direction and under the control of the U.S. military." The Department of Veterans Affairs tells us that so far, research into a possible link has been, quote, "conflicting and insufficient."

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