Confirmed: Afghan ‘burn pits’ wrecking US troops’ health
The unclassified US Army memo, obtained by the online magazine Wired.com, unequivocally states that a burn pit at one of the biggest US military bases in Afghanistan threatens the base's troops and staff with “long-term adverse health conditions."
The burn pit at Bagram Airfield produces large quantities of dust and burnt waste, which are most likely to impact veterans’ health for the rest of their lives, the memo continues. Breathing in the air at the base, veterans risk acquiring any of the following: “reduced lung function or exacerbated chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, atherosclerosis, or other cardiopulmonary diseases.”
The assessment is built on an eight-year study of weekly air samples taken at the base. The memo says air concentration of Particulate Matter 10 and Particulate Matter 2.5 (10 and 2.5 being the diameter of matter in micrometers) were twice and three times the maximum permitted standards, respectively.
To soldiers, burning anything from broken furniture to human waste in the best of US practice, the hazard comes under a more common name: dust. The air is heavy with it and its “running mate” – the heavy, acrid smell of grilled trash.
The memo is dated April 2011, when the affected population on the base scaled up to “40,000 Service Members and contractors.”
Since 2003, when the research was launched, Bagram Airfield has been a point of transit for hundreds of thousands of troops. Millions more have served at other Afghan bases and in Iraq, near similar burn pits.
“It’s good to see someone in the military is acknowledging there are going to be long-term problems with burn pits, but it’s disturbing that this memo is more than a year old and it doesn’t seem like the military has done anything about it,” Tom Tarantino, deputy policy director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America advocacy group, told Wired.com.
But Pentagon seems to think Bagram's dust is just on soldiers' shoes. In 2004, a fact sheet issued by Pentagon’s deployment health library declared that the high particulate matter in the air of the base “should not cause any long-term health effects.” In 2010, their epidemiological study found that upon returning home, Bagram veterans would be as healthy “as, those who had never deployed.”
Still, thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have suffered chest pains, asthma and migraines they associate with service. Some try to sue their military contractors for exposing them to unhealthy conditions, but as official research failed to prove their charges, damages were scarcely paid. Now, with the leaked Bagram Airfield memo, at least some may hope for compensation.