Anyone who has been deployed in either Iraq or Afghanistan has probably been exposed to burning trash in one form or another, either from the burn pits on military posts or citizens burning their own trash. It is a putrid and unforgettable smell. The burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan provided a relatively easy way to dispose of the unwanted trash, feces, medical waste, and debris left over from years of fighting. According to data from the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Defense, there were at at least 230 burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many veterans are claiming that the burn pits are the source of many health issues, such as cancer and respiratory issues. KBR, or Kellogg Brown and Root, LLC, took over responsibility of managing some of the burn pits on a daily basis early on in both wars. Many testified to Congress in 2009 that KBR violated safety regulations regarding the burn pits. Some moved to sue KBR as early as 2008, however, there has not been a settlement or judgment as of yet. KBR still owes the court the exact locations of the burn pits they managed. KBR released the following statement:

At the limited number of bases where KBR operated burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, KBR personnel did so safely and effectively at the direction and under the control of the US military,” KBR said in a statement. “Government studies and reports show that military personnel deployed to south-west Asia were exposed to many hazardous conditions, including the harsh ambient air. The government’s best scientific and expert opinions have repeatedly concluded there is no link between any long term health issues and burn pit emissions.”

This is contradictory to what the EPA has released on burning garbage in general:

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns that burned waste, even in a small pit in one’s own backyard, releases harmful toxins that contribute to a slew of illnesses. Dioxins, which the EPA says can come from metal smelting, are capable of altering the development of cells and causing cancer.”

The VA created a registry for veterans to file their complaints, but they still fail to recognize a link to long-term health issues. When NPR wrote an article highlighting the links between many of the health issues and the burn pits, the VA responded with this statement:

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At this time, there is conflicting and insufficient research to show that long-term health problems have resulted from burn pit exposure. VA continues to study the health of exposed veterans. The burn pit registry, which helps participants to become more aware of their health, while helping researchers to study the health effects of burn pits and other airborne hazards, is one of several research projects currently underway at VA.”

The burn pits, in combination with the toxins many of our service members and civilian contractors were exposed to, seem to have a link to serious health issues. The VA will probably continue to drag their feet on this issue, much like they did with Agent Orange following Vietnam. The negative effects of Agent Orange are still debated, as the symptoms that many attribute to it vary from person to person.

Editorial Cartoon courtesy of Robert Lang