The Burn Pits of Iraq and Afghanistan
The United States military is utilizing burn pits to dispose military waste throughout their bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are highly toxic locations and pose a significant health hazard to the military and the public living in the communities surrounding them. Pregnant women and children under the age of three are at significant health risk from these burn site locations. In fact, pound-for-pound, children breathe 50 percent more air than do adults, and as a result, our children inhale a greater percentage of harmful air contaminants. The science of incinerators is well known and should be stated. Burn pits are unlike incinerators, in that they contain no filters or filtration systems to capture the most lethal contaminants in the burning process.
Sandra Steingraber explains the science of incinerators in Living Downstream. Keep in mind that Burn Pits do not contain those filters.
No matter how improved or what they are called, incinerators present two problems that landfills do not. First, incinerators only transform garbage; they don’t provide a final resting place for it. There remains the question of where to put the ashes. Second, these cavernous furnaces create, out of the ordinary garbage they are stoked with, new species of toxic chemicals. In addition to producing electricity, they generate hazardous waste….
Moreover, the process of burning concentrates into the ash whatever hazardous materials are present in the original refuse. Heavy metal, such as mercury, lead, and cadmium, for example, are not destroyed by fire. Occurring as ingredients in household batteries, lightbulbs, paints, dyes, and thermometers, they are absolutely persistent. Air pollution control depends on the ability of an incinerator’s cooling chambers to condense these metals onto fine particles, which are then caught in special filters.
Once again, the irony of trade-offs becomes readily apparent: the less air pollution, the more toxic ash. An incinerator burning eighteen boxcars of trash per day, for example, produces about ten truckloads of ash per day. The trucks must then rumble out onto the highways, hauling their poisonous cargo through all kinds of weather. Once ensconced in special burying grounds, incinerator ash, of course, presents a hazard to groundwater.
The second problem is more an issue of chemistry than physics. Somewhere between the furnaces and the top of the stack, on the slippery surfaces of fly ash particles, in the crucible of heating and cooling, carbon and chlorine atoms rearrange themselves to create molecules of dioxins and their closely related organochlorine allies, the furans.
There are many dozens of dioxins and furans, but, as with snowflakes, their individual chemical configurations are all variations on a theme. Recall that benzene consists of a hexagonal ring of carbon atoms. This ring can then be studded with chlorine atoms. Two chlorinated benzene rings bonded directly together form a polychlorinated biphenyl, a PCB. By contrast, two chlorinated benzene rings held together by a single atom of oxygen and a double carbon bond are called a furan. A pair of chlorinated benzene rings linked by two oxygen atoms form a dioxin. There are 135 furans and 75 dioxins, each with a different number and arrangement of attached chlorines.
Dioxins and furans behave similarly in the human body, and they all to some degree elicit the set of biological effects described earlier. The most poisonous by far, however, is the dioxin known as TCDD. This particular molecule bears four chlorine atoms, each bonded to an outer corner. Because these points of attachment are located on the carbon atoms numbered 2,3,7, and 8, its full name is a mouthful. 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin. Imagine looking down from an airplane window at a pair of skydivers in a free fall, both hands joined together. Their geometry provides a reasonable impersonation of a TCDD molecule: the divers’ linked arms represent the double oxygen bridge, their bodies the benzene rings, and their splayed, outstretched legs the four chlorine atoms.
TCDD is scary because it is so stable. The symmetrical arrangement of its chlorine legs prevents enzymes–ours or any other living creature’s–from breaking TCDD apart. In human tissues, TCDD has a half-life of at least seven years. As we shall see, this particular geometry also allows TCDD admission into a cell’s nucleus and access to its DNA.
Ascertaining dioxin’s contribution to human cancers is one of the more frustrating challenges for public health researchers. Because dioxin is so potent at such vanishingly small levels, exposure is expensive to measure. Because it is so widely distributed, there remain no populations to serve as unexposed controls. Because dioxin so often rides the coattails of other carcinogens, confounding factors abound. U.S. military personnel exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, for example, were simultaneously exposed to 2,4-D and dioxin-contaminated 2,5,5-T, as noted in Chapter Three.
Animal studies provide a complex set of clues. In the laboratory, dioxin is an unequivocal carcinogen. As the dioxin researcher James Huff once noted, “In every species so far exposed to TCDD….. and by every route of exposure, clear carcinogenic responses have been found.” These include cancers of the lung, mouth, nose, thyroid gland, adrenal gland, lymphatic system, and skin. Dioxin also causes liver cancer in rats and mice, but it does so more often in females. Female rats whose ovaries have been removed, however, tend not to develop liver cancer when exposed to dioxin. On the other hand, they are far more likely to succumb to lung cancer. Clearly, an organism’s own internal hormones modulate dioxin’s carcinogenic powers, but through some unclear means.
(Portions from pages 215 – 223)
The use of burn pits as a military waste disposal method should immediately be banned and current burn pit sites closed to pubic. An assessment of the current health situation of employees who have worked, and are currently working in the burn bits, as well as the communities surrounding burn pits needs to be conducted. Groundwater testing must occur to determine if water supplies are currently contaminated.
Joseph Hickman’s book, The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers currently contains more than sufficient documentation of health impacts many are already experiencing.
In the opening chapter of this new book, Joseph Hickman, a former U.S. Marine and Army sergeant, shares the brief and tragic life story of one Iraq War veteran. In a nutshell, a healthy young man shipped off to Iraq, was stationed at a U.S. military base where he was exposed to a constant stream of toxic smoke, returned home with horrible respiratory problems, was denied care by the VA, developed brain cancer and died.
Thousands of soldiers have suffered similar fates since serving in the vicinity of the more than 250 military burn pits that operated at bases throughout Iraq and Afghanistan. Many who haven’t succumbed to their illnesses yet have passed along the legacy of their poisoning to their children. “The rate of having a child with birth defects is three times higher for service members who served in those countries,” according to the book.
Currently at the US Department of Veterans Affairs states, “At this time, research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits.”
The science of incinerators is known and those serving in the military services in the past have had more than enough experience with the uphill battle to cover the health costs of injuries they’ve sustained from Agent Orange and Camp Lejeune. It’s time to prevent the injuries from occurring in the first place or this nation is no longer deserving of having a military force. The Iraqi citizens deserve to live in a healthy environment where their children can grow up without cancer and birth defects from our military contamination. Vietnam is still reeling from generations of birth defects from our war there. It’s time to stop the continued generational holocaust of people here and abroad.