Burning Toxic Waste is Making U.S. Soldiers and Iraqis Sick, But the Pentagon Refuses to Admit It


Six years into the war, many U.S. bases in Iraq are still without incinerators, leaving open pits spewing toxic plumes over soldiers and civilians.

March 18, 2009 – Acetaldehyde, Acrolien, Arsenic, Benzene, Carbon Monoxide, Ethylbenzene,  Formaldehyde, Hydrogen Cyanide, Hydrogen Fluoride, Phosgene, Sulfur Dioxide, Sulfuric Acid, Toluene, Trichloroethane, Xylene. These are just some of the chemicals detected in smoke from the Balad Burn Pit, one of the many vast open pits spewing toxic plumes over Iraq and Afghanistan.

But not to worry; In “Just the Facts,” an information sheet for troops, the Department of Defense has stated that “the potential short- and long-term risks” from Balad “were estimated to be low.” The VA has just announced it will monitor reports of veterans’ pit-related illness. But the DoD has yet to declassify old air sample reports or issue current findings.

The Pentagon’s fact sheet appeared after VAWatchdog.com linked to a memo showing that, as early as 2006, the DoD had known that the pit was “an acute health hazard.” In the memo, titled “Burn Pit Health Hazards,” Air Force Bioenvironmental Engineering Flight Commander Darrin Curtis wrote to authorities that he found it “amazing that the burn pit has been able to operate without restrictions over the past few years without significant engineering controls being put in place.” In an accompanying memo, James R. Elliott, Chief of Air Force Aeromedical Services, concurred that the pit’s fumes contained “known carcinogens” and “respiratory sensitizers” that posed a “chronic and acute health hazard to our troops and the local population.”

“Iraqi Crud” and “Black Goop”

This week, the same memo was boldly posted on Wikileaks, more widely publicizing toxic exposure and governmental neglect. The evidence is clear. The Balad Burn pit is a Big Bad Burn Pit which burns most anything that comes its way including medical waste, styrofoam, and plastic. Soldiers, contractors, foreign workers, and Iraqis suffer what troops call “Iraqi crud,” whose symptoms include a hacking cough and black phlegm that goes by the name “black goop.” According to Army Times reporter Kelley Kennedy, “Though military officials say there are no known long-term effects from exposure to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 100 service members have come forward to Military Times and Disabled American Veterans with strikingly similar symptoms: chronic bronchitis, asthma, sleep apnea, chronic coughs and allergy-like symptoms. Several also have cited heart problems, lymphoma and leukemia.” Kevin Wilkins, an Air Force reservist, died last year after returning home from a tour of Balad and Qatar; his wife blames the pit. A year after working at Balad as a nurse, Wilkens was admitted to the hospital for a relentless headache and vomiting, symptoms that began in country. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died a week later.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) has taken up the cause. Six years into the war in Iraq, many bases are still without incinerators. In Afghanistan, U.S. bases have no incinerators. General David Petraeus claims the Pentagon is employing more incinerators, but that burn pits go with the territory: “There is and will continue to be a need for burn pits during contingency operations,” Petraeus wrote to Feingold.

Denial and Obfuscation

Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, a spokesman for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, claims the DoD carefully samples air at Balad and other bases with burn pits and all is well. “The bottom line on all of this sampling is that we have not identified anything, where there are troops, where it would have been hazardous to their health,” Kilpatrick said.

Take it from where it comes. Between 1997 and 2002, Michael Kilpatrick directed the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illness, where his main purpose seemed to be to promote stress — and only stress — as the link between wartime experience and veterans illness. In those five years, he spent $250 million “without publishing any medical research report or offering a single treatment program for ill GW veterans,” according to veterans advocate Steve Robinson. According to the General Accounting Office (GAO), Kilpatrick’s fixed position discouraged scientists from applying for grants for research on Gulf War illness, leaving pioneering work, such as that by Dr. Robert Haley, to rely on private funding. Despite compelling finding as early as 1998, that Gulf War illness was caused by brain damage from neurotoxins,  Kilpatrick insisted that  veterans’ headaches, dizziness, fatigue, bone and joint pain, memory loss, poor concentration, muscle weakness, skin rashes and sores, and gastrointestinal problems, and even  amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) could be linked only to stress. Since then, Kilpatrick has gone on to use his medical credential to discount the dangers of depleted uranium, hide the DoD’s non-compliance with pre- and post-deployment screening, and obfuscate the facts around distribution of anti-nerve gas pre-treatment pills, a major cause of Gulf War illness. And now he’s whitewashing Balad’s black fumes and “black goop”

The KBR Connection: Will There Be Accountability?

One Georgia man is having none Dr. Kilpatrick’s reassurances. In November, Joshua Eller, a civilian draftman, initiated what he hopes will be a class action suit against contractor KBR and its former parent company, Halliburton, for exposing people at the Balad base to unsafe water, food and hazardous burn pit fumes.

The suit claims that “all across Iraq and … not confined to Balad” KBR provided bathing water that was not disinfected, including according to former KBR employee testimony, water from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers that was polluted with sewage.  Regularly, KBR served soldiers spoiled, expired and rotten food and used dishes that may have been contaminated with shrapnel. The lawsuit claims that the plaintiff suffers from chronic skin lesions, abdominal distress, and nightmares.

KBR dumped medical waste, including needles, bandages, and body parts in the open pit. On one occasion,” the suit states, the plaintiff “witnessed a wild dog running around base with a human arm in its mouth.

Nora Eisenberg is the director of the City University of New York’s fellowship program for emerging scholars. Her short stories, essays and reviews have appeared in such places as The Partisan Review, The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Times and Tikkun. When You Come Home, her new novel, which explores the the 1991 Gulf War and Gulf War illness, will be published this month by Curbstone Press.

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