Katie Drummond writes: At the height of the war in Iraq, US forces operated out of 505 bases scattered across the country. Joint Base Balad, a 15-square-mile outpost north of Baghdad, was the second largest. Home to 36,000 military personnel and contractors at its peak, the base was considered a vital hub for operations throughout Iraq — largely thanks to two 11,000-foot runways and one of the best and biggest trauma centers in the region. Balad also boasted a notorious array of amenities: troops living in the makeshift mini-city could dine on Burger King or Subway, play miniature golf or relax in an air-conditioned movie theater, and browse for TVs or iPods at two different shopping centers.
But when Le Roy arrived at Balad in the summer of 2007, the first thing he noticed was the smell. A noxious, overwhelming stench reminiscent of burning rubber. “I was like, ‘Wow, that is something really bad, really really bad,’” he recalls. Soon, he also noticed the smoke: plumes of it curling into the air at all hours of the day, sometimes lingering over the base as dark, foreboding clouds. That smoke, Le Roy soon learned, was coming from the same place as the stench that had first grabbed him: Balad’s open-air burn pit.
The pit, a shallow excavation measuring a gargantuan 10 acres, was used to incinerate every single piece of refuse generated by Balad’s thousands of residents. That meant seemingly innocuous items, like food scraps or paper. But it also meant plastic, styrofoam, electronics, metal cans, rubber tires, ammunition, explosives, human feces, animal carcasses, lithium batteries, asbestos insulation, and human body parts — all of it doused in jet fuel and lit on fire. The pit wasn’t unique to Balad: open-air burn pits, operated either by servicemembers or contractors, were used to dispose of trash at bases all across Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I remember waking up with soot on me; you’d come out and barely see the sun because it was so dark from the smoke,” says Dan Meyer, a 28-year-old Air Force veteran who lived adjacent to the burn pit at Afghanistan’s Kandahar Air Base. Meyer is now confined to a wheelchair because of inoperable tumors in his knees, and breathes using an oxygen tank due to an obstructive lung disease. “It would just rain down on us. We always called it ‘black snow.’”
It’s no secret that open-air burning poses health hazards. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has long warned that burning waste — even organic refuse like brush or tree branches — is dangerous. Burning items like plastic water bottles or computer parts is even worse. “It’s appalling,” says Anthony Wexler, PhD, director of the Air Quality Research Center at UC Davis and the co-author of a 2010 review of the military’s air-quality surveillance programs in Iraq and Afghanistan. “From a health perspective, this kind of open-pit burning, especially when you’re burning everything under the sun, creates a real mess.” That’s because of both the size of the particulate matter emitted from the pits and its composition. Smoke from any combustion process fills the air with what are known as “fine particles” or PM2.5. Because they’re so small — measuring 2.5 microns in diameter or less — these particles burrow more deeply into the lungs than larger airborne pollutants, and from there can leach into the bloodstream and circulate through the body. The military’s burn pits emitted particulate matter laced with heavy metals and toxins — like sulfur dioxide, arsenic, dioxins, and hydrochloric acid — that are linked to serious health ailments. Among them are chronic respiratory and cardiovascular problems, allergies, neurological conditions, several kinds of cancer, and weakened immune systems. [Continue reading…]
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