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Individuals signing up for the military undergo extensive training to understand the risks of being shipped overseas. While drills prepare them for bullets, insurgents and even improvised explosive device (IEDs), few expect to experience major health consequences from waste disposal.

Some soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan allege that defense contractors hired to implement waste management solutions exposed them to toxic waste, which then traveled by smoke over to the barracks and seeped into the drinking water. These burn pits, some as large as 10 acres and set up in both regions, became the dumping grounds for anything from canvas, wood, paint and animal carcasses to plastic, batteries, computer parts, fuel, hydraulic fluid, medical and human bodily waste, tires and old vehicles. Once there, the waste was then incinerated with jet fuel. Although the military initiated this strategy, KBR – a subsidiary of Halliburton – overtook the solution in the early 2000s and has managed it throughout both wars.

Soldiers – those working directly at the burn pits and stationed adjacent to them – claim exposure to the smoke and fumes has caused them to develop a range of long-term health issues, including:

  • Allergies
  • Asthma and other breathing issues
  • Multiple cancers, including to the skin, lungs, bones and even the brain
  • Leukemia
  • Chronic bronchitis, Bronchiolitis and constant coughing
  • Infections to the skin, throat and nose bleeds that never go away
  • Severe abdominal pains
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Pulmonary conditions
  • Headaches
  • Sleep apnea
  • Ulcers
  • Weight loss
  • Lesions on extremities
  • Neurological issues

As more soldiers return and find they are developing health conditions that don’t go away, the number of lawsuits against KBR and other military contractors continues to grow.

Background

As of 2010, the military had 251 burn pits in Iraq and 22 in Afghanistan, with Joint Base Balad being the largest. To date, it’s estimated that 25,000 personnel, both living on the bases and working where the pits were located, were exposed to the smoke and fumes, which were generated from about 100 tons of materials incinerated daily.

Usage goes back to the early 2000s, and by 2003, service members started complaining of the above health issues after working or living near the burn pits. Yet, the correlation didn’t come to light until 2007, when a draft summary sent to military commanders in Iraq pointed to potential cancer risks from exposure. Specifically, the report indicated air near Balad had dioxin levels 51 times the acceptable limit, particulate exposure 50 times greater than it should have been, double the level of volatile compounds and two to eight times the acceptable cancer risk. Following up on these figures, The Military Times reported that thousands of troops may have been exposed to arsenic, carbon monoxide and hazardous medical waste at Balad alone.

In 2009, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act into law. This document specified improper use of burn pits and required the Department of Defense to investigate their effects on soldiers and to find alternative waste disposal methods. That same year, the Senate Democratic Policy Committee discussed contractor abuses and corruption and the health risks of open-air burn pits.

From January to March 2010, the U.S. Government Accountability Office went to four burn pits in Iraq, only to find that none were managed in accordance with the updated regulations. Specifically, all burned plastic components, which generate carcinogens and the latest regulations banned. These findings got some attention in document “DOD Should Improve Adherence to Its Guidance on Open Pit Burning and Solid Waste Management,” which not only stated that Iraq’s burn pits failed to follow the updated regulations but additionally attributed returning soldiers’ health issues to their highly toxic emissions.

KBR has since counteracted these findings, stating that they operated the pits in a safe and effective manner with guidance from the U.S. Military. As well, data from a 2011 Institute of Medicine Report determines that the emissions may not be behind soldiers’ chronic conditions; rather, researchers claim the high level of dust and pollution in Iraq and Afghanistan may have contributed to respiratory illnesses. Since then, the VA established a registry for returning soldiers and continues to study those exposed.

Lawsuits

Just a few years after the military’s 2007 findings, current and former soldiers started filing lawsuits against the military’s waste management contractors, alleging mismanagement, failure to follow their contract and warn personnel about the hazards, and the burn pits’ emissions are behind their chronic health conditions or early death. Specifically, they claim KBR and Halliburton built the pits upwind from soldiers’ living quarters. Per the Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP), contractors must set up waste disposal downwind, so fumes don’t blow toward the barracks. After claims filed in 43 states, a class action lawsuit has since been established.

Yet, a loop hole in which the military can’t be sued complicates these cases. While companies like KBR and Halliburton are separate entities, having a defense contract envelopes them in with the military – but only for combat-related tasks. However, having waste disposed at bases rather than transported off is further the military’s decision, although its contractors regularly failed to follow updated regulations.