The Environmental Legacy of International Burn Pits Continues After 20 Years

Some people in Iraq and Afghanistan who lived or worked downwind from burn pits experienced negative health effects.

The original story about the 20-year legacy of the burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan was published by Louisa Loveluck and Mustafa Salim of the Washington Post on March 18, 2023. Let’s look at what we know and what has changed. Despite official U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) policy that prohibits them “except in circumstances in which no alternative disposal method is feasible;” open-air burn pits were a method of waste management and disposal often used in areas with little or no infrastructure. “ Burn pits are distinguished from incineration in that they are situated out in the open, either on flat ground or in excavated depressions, rather than contained in an incinerator apparatus,” according to the American Public Health Association (APHA).

A burn pit is one approach to waste disposal used by the US military at bases in the Middle East, mainly in Afghanistan and Iraq starting in 2001. Burn pits were widely distributed geographically, but they exposed Iraqi and Afghan citizens—including women and children who experienced the detrimental health effects—to emissions as the burn pits were often located close by. APHA explained. According to VetsHQ, burn pits were also found in Kuwait, Somalia, Turkey, Spain, Qatar, Djibouti, Haiti, Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Diego Garcia, Bahrain, Oman, Syria, Yemen, Uzbekistan and Pakistan. Even though the environmental complaints led to new U.S. laws restricting burn pits by the end of 2010, burning continued unrestricted in Afghanistan until 2021 when U.S. military forces left the country.

Burn pits incinerated tons of both waste hazardous and nonhazardous products (including trash, plastics, wood, metal, paints, chemical solvents, munitions, Styrofoam, rubber, petroleum and lubricant products and medical and human waste). Waste material was burned because burning was considered at the time to be more environmentally friendly. At its peak in 2001, the DoD estimated that between 65,000 and 85,000 pounds of solid waste were burned daily at the larger bases. Typically, JP-8 jet fuel, which contains benzene, was used as an accelerant. Burn pits created large volumes of heavy, thick, black smoke along with toxic gases, vapors and fume. They gave off more air pollution than conventional incineration because the burning took place in an open area and at lower burn temperatures.

Military personnel who spent time near the burn pits had varying levels of exposure to air pollution, especially by the contractors who were assigned to tend the burn pits. However, the local farmers, herdsmen, storekeepers, merchants, construction workers, and residents living nearby were exposed to burn pit emissions being carried by the prevailing wind. The smoke that rose above some American air bases was sometimes thick enough to temporarily blot out the sun. 

At first, the citizens had no idea what was burned or if it was hazardous. Before long, these people struggled to breathe the air. Farmers and foreign civilian contractors would return home with soot streaks on their forearms and tell stories about what was being dumped into the burn pit that day including batteries, human waste, plastic ration packs and even refrigerators. There were massive piles of military uniforms, equipment, computers, and other debris incinerated in deep holes to prevent resources from falling into the hands of adversaries as well as the ability to control the massive waste stream generated at the bases.

Nearly 20 years have passed since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and theaters in the Middle East. However, the burn pit debacle continues over the potential environmental concerns left behind in the soil, sediment and groundwater. Many veterans experienced a variety of acute short-term exposure while they were at peak health. Afghan and Iraqi people were in all stages of their life when they were exposed to the burn pits, which lasted for over 10 years. Even those people who lived or worked at a distance downwind faced a lot of health effects that varied depending on the proximity, volume and contents in the garbage. Some dump sites were used open pit toilets while other dumps held mounds of discarded and trashed equipment, much of it thrown away in perfect working condition when military units left.

While U.S. veterans have won justice for their exposure to the burn pit toxins, the Iraqi and Afghan people have been forgotten. Iraqi and Afghan wives living downwind noticed a lot of birth defects and fertility issues while farmers noticed the adverse health effect on their crops and livestock. Children showed signs and symptoms of dizziness, balance problems, and cases of brain cancer. The rise in the number of birth defects may be a result of environmental contamination (air, water, sediment and soil), which was linked with burn pits.

While on active duty, U.S. military service members were exposed to a variety of airborne hazards from the burn pits emissions along with airborne exposure to dust from sandstorms; general air pollution from theater operations; exposure to jet fuel, aircraft exhaust; and emissions from oil well fires. In Iraq, Afghanistan, and other southwest Asian military operations, open-air combustion of waste in burn pits was common practice. Since the initial investigation on exposure risk, the DoD closed most burn pits worldwide.

Depending on a variety of factors, both U.S. military service members and the Iraqi and Afghan people have experienced many health effects related to this exposure. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, “Factors that may indicate you have a greater or lesser risk of short or long-term health effects include:

  • Types of waste burned
  • Proximity, amount of time, and frequency of exposure
  • Wind direction and other weather-related factors
  • Presence of other airborne or environmental hazards in the area”
  • Environmental air pollution emanating from burning crude oil to cure the bricks in the nearby underground kilns.

Limited environmental testing of the air, soil, sediment and groundwater near burn pits has been done to document the presence or absence of chemical compounds linked with cancer or other diseases. Incomplete combustion of organic and inorganic material in burn pits can generate high volumes of respirable particulate that includes metals, benzene, polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzo-p-furans, PAHs, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like hexachlorobenzene. Studies show a link between the respiratory fraction of PM2.5 in the air to heart disease, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, and an increased risk of early death. But what environmental contamination lies beneath the burn pits may be another compelling story.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) listed the following presumptive medical conditions that could exist for U.S. military service members exposed to burn pit emissions. These are the same medical conditions experienced by the Iraqi and Afghan people from the air emissions during the burning as well as the suspected environmental pollution left behind. These illnesses and diseases listed by the VA include:

  • Brain cancer
  • Gastrointestinal cancer of any type
  • Glioblastoma
  • Head cancer of any type
  • Kidney cancer
  • Lymphatic cancer of any type
  • Lymphoma of any type
  • Melanoma
  • Neck cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Reproductive cancer of any type
  • Squamous cell carcinoma of the larynx
  • Squamous cell carcinoma of the trachea
  • Adenocarcinoma of the trachea
  • Salivary gland-type tumors of the trachea
  • Adenosquamous carcinoma of the lung
  • Large cell carcinoma of the lung
  • Salivary gland-type tumors of the lung
  • Sarcomatoid carcinoma of the lung
  • Typical and atypical carcinoid of the lung
  • Respiratory (breathing-related) cancer of any type
  • Asthma that was diagnosed after service
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • (COPD)
  • Chronic rhinitis
  • Chronic sinusitis
  • Constrictive bronchiolitis or obliterative bronchiolitis
  • Emphysema
  • Granulomatous disease
  • Interstitial lung disease (ILD)
  • Pleuritis
  • Pulmonary fibrosis
  • Sarcoidosis

On a recent trip to the area, the Washington Post reporters (Louisa Loveluck and Mustafa Salim) interviewed more than a dozen Iraqi citizens who had developed cancer or respiratory problems while working at the Balad base or living nearby. Most said that they had been young and physically fit before falling ill without any family history of similar ailments. Per the Washington Post article, “Their accounts are corroborated by experts who have studied burn pit exposure and by local doctors, who observed an alarming rise in illnesses [and diseases].”

The residue from the burn pits contains many hazardous substances that may have contaminated the soil, sediment, groundwater, and vegetation. The contaminants can enter the human food chain through crops and livestock. Some organic chemicals can percolate in the soil or sediment and enter the groundwater for drinking while other hazardous chemicals may bind tightly to soil and not migrate. Certain hazardous chemicals released by burning can accumulate in the fat of grazing animals, crops grown near the burn pits or the consumption of contaminated meat and dairy products.

Per the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, “Some of the most dangerous chemicals created and released during burning are those from burnt plastics,” such as polychlorinated dibenzodioxins (PCDDs) and polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs) which are pyrolysis byproducts formed when chlorine-containing materials decompose. PCDDs and PCDFs tend to adhere to the waxy surface of leaves, and soil and enter the food chain. Without the ability to characterize, contain or remediate any contaminated soil, sediment or groundwater, these hazardous chemicals will remain a toxic legacy to nearby residents for many years. Other chemicals that may be released into the ambient environment as a gas or vapor include benzo(a)pyrene (BAP) and PAHs, which have been shown to cause cancer in animals and humans.

The EPA and U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) are on record acknowledging that exposure to toxins emitted by the burned waste was detrimental to human health. The cessation of the burn pits occurred in 2010 but ecological and environmental damage has created a monumental social injustice. Currently, there are no plans to conduct any formal environmental risk assessment or investigation to evaluate the legacy of toxins left behind. The advancements in science have demonstrated that bioremediation and phytoremediation can be effective methods to reduce contamination besides incineration, thermal desorption, and vitrification. Other remediation techniques include in situ processes like bioventing, biosparging, biostimulation, bioaugmentation and phytoremediation and ex situ methods such as land farming, composting, biopiles and bioreactors.

The military has a poor environmental record for cleaning up any environmental contamination. Every day, it produces more toxic waste than three of the largest U.S. chemical manufacturers combined, and, in 2008, nearly 25,000 of DoD properties in the U.S. were reported to be contaminated. The U.S. military has produced a trail of toxic chemicals in other areas of the world including the Pacific islands, Philippines, Germany, Central Europe, and several oceans. As an example, the Puerto Rican island Vieques was used as a Navy bombing range. It still “remains contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), solvents, and pesticides, with an estimated cleanup cost of $50 million,” per APHA. With the rising cost of inflation, the cleanup cost may be much higher.

Under Section 120 of the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), “the [DoD] is required to take responsibility for all remedial action necessary to protect human health and the environment caused by its activities in the past,” per APHA. The DoD has demonstrated its capacity to manage some past environmental disasters abroad. In 2005, the Pentagon successfully cleaned up two of its former bases in western and southeastern Germany. After the remediation and closure of those military bases, the land was returned to German authorities. Before returning the land back to Germany, comprehensive studies investigated the effectiveness of the environmental management program prior to the base closing. Hazardous waste removal was successfully accomplished at both bases. Sustained monitoring of surface water, groundwater, soil, and air continues to ensure the area remains healthy for human habitation.

Similarly, the U.S. military started to remediate the damage caused by the use of the dioxin-containing defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam war era that ended in 1975. More than 2 million Vietnamese residents were directly exposed to Agent Orange, which was dispersed over 76,800 square kilometers. According to APHA, “The United States is now spending $43 million to clean up the 47-acre Đà Nẵng Airport; in April 2014, Vietnam and the United States jointly commissioned a thermal treatment system to remediate dioxin-contaminated soil in this heavily contaminated former US military base.” An estimated 80,000 cubic meters of contaminated soil were processed to thermally destroy the dioxins. The Đà Nẵng airport cleanup operation was completed in 2016. According to the Vietnam News Agency, the U.S. government is helping Vietnam clean up other former military sites in addition to the airport. But what about other major metropolitan areas affected by the application of Agent Orange? No reports exist of any further environmental mitigation efforts to protect the Vietnamese people.

According to an article in Scientific American, “Understanding the challenge of remediation outside of an active war zone can illustrate the baseline difficulties. For example, one nonmilitary cleanup in New York State focused on a burn pit used by an industrial manufacturer. The process required participants to monitor groundwater for contaminants and build up two feet of soil to enable passive decontamination by beneficial plants. ‘Long-term, direct contact to humans can be prevented or mitigated by placement of a clean soil cover over the area,’ [a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation] official explained.” But the remediation does not end with covering the land. There is the issue of groundwater contamination that lies deep beneath the soil, which may be more challenging. Progress should re-assessed the potential for underground contamination after the cleanup effort. Burn pits in Afghanistan, Iraq and other parts of the world “could face similar cleanup problems,” the article said.

According to APHA, “For a variety of reasons, including the reluctance of US science agencies to investigate hazards associated with other US government agencies, sources of documentation of environmental damage tend to be more journalistic than scientific. Still, there is evidence that cleanup and restoration of previously contaminated military sites have yielded benefits for public health. The primary cleanup mission at overseas US military locations is to remediate “known” imminent and substantial endangerment to human health and safety, specifically any endangerment attributable to environmental contamination from past military operations. Protection of human health is another important mission.”

So how long will it take, if ever, for the DoD to conduct an environmental risk assessment of these burn pits? Regardless of the financial burden, the U.S. has a duty, obligation and responsibility to clean up all of the burn pit environmental contamination to protect the livelihoods of residents of all affected countries. However, there is a slight glitch. In the absence of U.S. military progress in finding alternatives to burn pits and fund cleaning-up operations, legal strategies have emerged to compound the issue. 

The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that cases can proceed against Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR) and Halliburton, the main construction contractors employed by the U.S. government in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters. The lawsuits involve thousands of plaintiffs that allege they suffered harm resulting from the contaminated air, soil and water produced by the KBR- and Halliburton-constructed burn pits. While these cases make their way through the courts, the Supreme Court has ruled that contractors are “not entitled to derivative sovereign immunity.” 

Per APHA, “in January 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that lawsuits involving open-air burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan can proceed. This decision will encourage thousands of US veterans—who were exposed to burn pit emissions and have signed up with the Department of Veterans Affairs registry—to sue US military contractors (i.e., KBR and Halliburton) for negligence in the disposal of waste on bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

So how long will it take before any action is taken and who will be ultimately responsible for the cleanup cost? These questions largely remain unanswered but it may come too late for many of the burn pit victims in foreign nations. It also may be too costly to undertake by any government, insurer or company. In a 2017 report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated the final cost of such cleanups in U.S. bases would be nearly $15 billion or $18.5 billion based on inflation in 2023. Other more realistic estimates of the total environmental cleanup cost may be in excess of $400 billion besides the ongoing medical and healthcare cost to veterans. 

About the Author

Bernard L. Fontaine, Jr. CIH, CSP, FAIHA is the Managing Partner of The Windsor Consulting Group, Inc.

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