Friday, April 16, 2010

Burn baby burn

The wind is a savior.  The sulfur and carbon dust blow with the wind, and any point lateral or upwind of the Burn Pit can enjoy a day of clean breathing.  On still days, the burning refuse eminates in all directions from the pit, and fills each of the lungs which breathe it, twenty thousand of times per day.  These lungs, like the filters on the air conditioners and the screens on the windows, are painted with the visible contents of the air.  The molten and aerosolized rubber, heated and gaseous deposits of countless ploymers, and the pungent essence of the charred methane of human waste, create a noxious olfactory cacophony.

At my current, location, the largest of the burn pits - an open air 10 acre ignited waste dump - has been replaced by more sanitary means of disposing of waste.  But for years, this was assumed the most efficient, feasible means to be rid of garbage in this war zone where priorities for strategic control and security outweighed what was considered a nuisance smell.  Clearly, the burning and susequent inhalation of carcinogens and pulmonary toxins is more than a nuisance, and it may be that these pits increased the risk of a variety of maladies in our soldiers. 

Indeed, soldiers in the area have claimed exposure-associated illnesses ranging from lung fibrosis to emphysema to cancers of all types, first when Saddam set fire to oil geysers in his 1990-91 retreat from Kuwait, then with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and since then on fixed installations which developed burn pits.  The difficulty is delineating causation and coincidence as the inhaled toxins are known to be dangerous in a dose-dependent fashion, and exposures are extremely variable depending on the jobs we have in theatre.  For example, it may be easier for a young corporal who dumped garbage and lit it on fire to make the case for a VA claim, than it would be for Predator pilot working from an underground climate controlled room.  Regardless, this is causing big problems for the government as the number of claims has risen, and the evidence of causation is really mounting.  There is a good NYT article on the subject - the link is here:

Interestingly, the DoD has repeatedly claimed lack that these burn pits are safe.  As the NYT article ponits out, however, the internal studies were done in settings bound to bias against causation (rainy days, etc).  This is very disappointing, and has to make one wonder.  It is as though we are revisiting the Vietnam:Agent Orange episode all over again.  Ultimately, the government will likely end up spending more money caring for the veterans who became ill in theater, than it would have spent to create safer incineration/waste removal practices in the first place.  This time, however, the VA will pay, and not the DoD.  Interesting.

1 comment:

  1. Mike:

    You have put your Davidson and Wake degree to good use. I have been reading your blog daily and find it fascinating. I gave your blog site to my nurse who has a 19 year old in Iraq- so she can read Irag from a different perspective than the US newspapers. So although blogging seems lonely, I bet you have many faithful "but silent" followers.

    Oh, did you hear our common (your) hometown, DAvidson and Wake Law friend (JH) just adopted 3 children (6,8,9) and I am their pediatrician - a small world.

    Keep writing people are listening and I wish you and your family the best.