Hazardous materials, medical waste and batteries are being burned illegally at military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, potentially posing a health threat to soldiers, according to a recent New York Times article.

People exposed to this hazardous smoke are experiencing a litany of negative health effects like multiple cancers, respiratory disease, pulmonary complications, chronic coughing, debilitating headaches, and neurological and skin disorders.

Despite the fact that the military says burn pits should only be used to dispose of trash in emergency situations, many burn pits are still active on well-established military bases and are located upwind from soldiers’ living quarters as close as a quarter-mile away.

As a result, more than 200 KBR employee-contractors, veterans and families of service members have signed onto a lawsuit against KBR, a military contractor, alleging negligence and harm from the burn pits at military sites in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"No one wants half a paramedic," said Russell Keith, a paramedic at the largest U.S. base in Iraq and employee-contractor for KBR.

While there, Keith said he witnessed an uptick in patients after seeing burn pits filled with waste like body fluids, batteries and tires set on fire, releasing a dark, acrid smoke.

Keith is currently unemployed and medically disqualified from returning to Iraq because of neurological damage and signs and symptoms of Parkinson's disease his doctors say are associated with toxin exposure.

Though the U.S. Central Command keeps no official tallies on the number of burn pits used in the military, Rick Lamberth, a former KBR employee who is also involved in the lawsuit and worked in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2004 and 2009, estimates there are currently at least 100 burn pits in Iraq and 30 in Afghanistan.

"From as close as 10 feet away, I saw nuclear, biological and medical waste, including bloody cotton gauze, plastics, tires, petroleum cans, oils and lubricants thrown into burn pits," Lamberth testified, saying he witnessed such activities in both Iraq and Afghanistan. "Vermin, wild dogs and jackals would roam the pits, carrying off debris," he added.

The plaintiffs chose to target KBR instead of the U.S. military because they claim that the contractor was largely responsible for running the pits.

The Department of Defense, meanwhile, insists that though the burning practices can irritate the eyes, nose and throat, a study in 2007 conducted by the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventative Medicine found that the burn pits pose no long-term health risks.

But others, including Anthony Szema, chief of the allergy section at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northport, N.Y., beg to differ. He said he’s seen an increase in the number of young women and men who were previously healthy suffering from a variety of respiratory illnesses.

"This is an alarming trend," Szema added, "since we reported double the rate of new-onset adult asthma diagnoses among Iraq-deployed versus stateside troops."

To help determine the health effects of exposure to burn pits, the Department of Veteran Affairs is currently studying the health of 30,000 combat veterans who were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and comparing their results to the same number of veterans who were never deployed.

Representatives are also working to get legislation passed establishing a burn pit registry that would keep track of any troop exposed to open burn pits. 

Illegal burning at military bases poses health threat to soldiers
Open pits at bases in Afghanistan and Iraq often burn hazardous materials that may be harmful if inhaled.