November 9, 2008 – Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., has written to Gen. David Petraeus, the new chief of U.S. Central Command, demanding to be informed about any pending investigations into health problems for troops exposed to burn pit smoke in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“After years of helping veterans of the Vietnam and Gulf wars cope with the health effects of toxic battlefields, we have learned that we must take exposures to toxins seriously to ensure that this generation of service members does not face the same difficulties,” Feingold wrote in a letter dated Oct. 31.
“While I appreciate the nearly overwhelming set of challenges we face in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no excuse for exposing service members and local civilians to preventable hazards.”
Feingold said he read about the issue in a Military Times paper. Another Military Times story showed hazardous waste is a problem throughout Iraq and Afghanistan.
Since the stories came out, more than 50 service members have written to Military Times expressing concern about the burn pits, some saying they’re fearful that a litany of ailments they have – asthma, allergies, headaches, even cancer – may be linked to the burn pit smoke that they inhaled for prolonged periods.
Defense Department officials said dioxin in the burn pit smoke is at levels that pose an “acceptable risk” for cancer and other issues, but added that they still need to study levels of potentially harmful ultra-fine particulate matter.
“Rather than focusing exclusively on exposure levels, we have learned from past experience that we must look at the affected population and examine the real-world impact of their potential exposure to toxins,” Feingold wrote. “We must also ensure that potential exposure is documented.”
Feingold asked for statistics on service members with respiratory problems, as well as whether any local citizens may have been exposed. So far, the Defense Department has checked exposure safety levels only for up to a one-year deployment, not for the several years local Iraqis would have been exposed to the pits, which have been burning since the beginning of the wars.
Feingold also wondered why only 17 incinerators, which reduce toxic emissions, are in full operation in Iraq, even though 41 have been approved for use.
“I would appreciate knowing how many incinerators have been requested by commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, how many have been approved, and when all of the incinerators approved or planned for use will be included,” Feingold wrote.