Editor’s note: This is one in a series of reports about the potential health hazards to military personnel who had been deployed to areas with airborne toxins from burn pits, oil fires and desert sandstorms.
When it comes to conducting research, the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs could have a resource previously untapped — firefighters.
Firefighting organizations — such as the Illinois Fire Service Institute at the University of Illinois — have been studying the long-term health effects of exposure to toxic smoke on firefighters for decades.
Yet, for military personnel exposed to toxic smoke from open burn pits while deployed to Southwest Asia, DoD and the VA say there is not yet enough evidence to presume exposure to be the cause of certain illnesses and cancers afflicting them.
When it comes to firefighters, the state of Texas passed legislation in 2005 that states a firefighter diagnosed with cancer is presumed to have developed that cancer during the course of employment if the cancer is known to be associated with heat, smoke, radiation or known/suspected carcinogens as determined by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer.
In the meantime, veterans are getting sick and, in some cases, dying. Many are unable to receive treatment through the VA and are building up mounds of debt because their illnesses cannot be considered service connected until enough research is done to link their issues to burn pits exposure.
More than 3.7 million active-duty service members and veterans have been exposed to the toxic smoke from open burn pits while serving in areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan during the War on Terror, and many of them are beginning to get sick with illnesses and cancers they can’t explain.
Burn pits were used to destroy plastics, batteries, medical waste, ammunition and everything in between. They were a common way to get rid of waste and helped ensure some items — such as military uniforms and items that could potentially be used against military troops — did not fall into enemy hands. Burn pits have been in use in Southwest Asia since August 1990 at the beginning of Operation Desert Shield and used throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Many sick veterans firmly believe the toxins in the smoke from those burn pits are the cause of their illnesses. Diane Slape, of Belton, lost her husband, retired Sgt. 1st Class Frederick T. Slape, to an aggressive cancer he had suspected, and she believes, was directly related to her husband’s exposure to open burn pits.
Yet DoD and the VA are still hesitant to link those illnesses to exposure, saying it could take decades of research to provide that link.
The government should be able to make that exact determination, according to Lauren Price, a Navy veteran who organized a group called Veteran Warriors, which regularly advocates on behalf of veterans to Congress on a variety of issues.
“We threw in everything from equipment, old oil, Styrofoam, plastic water bottles and broken parts from vehicles,” said Price, who had to make frequent runs to the burn pit at Camp Victory, near Baghdad, Iraq, during a deployment from 2007 to 2008. “And all of those parts from the vehicles, down to the nuts and bolts, were covered in corrosion-resistant paint — and it’s already been proven that the emissions from that paint burning causes cancer.”
Not only is it easy for DoD and the VA to figure out what was burned in the open burn pits, says Price — who operates Veteran Warriors out of Tampa, Florida — but there is no need to conduct more long-term research in order to presume a link between exposure and illnesses.
“There have been agencies researching contaminates since the 1960’s, a veritable alphabet soup,” she said. “The (Environmental Protection Agency), (Centers for Disease Control), WHO ... that’s the reason why we have emissions laws in the U.S., local, state and federal laws on burning trash outdoors, laws on burning tires, you name it. They’ve already proven what the health hazards are when burning these items. Heck, burning jet fuel (used to keep the fires in open burn pits going) releases a whole host of toxic carcinogens. None of the things we burned over there are allowed to be burned here in the U.S.”
One way to find out exactly what kinds of toxins are in the smoke coming from an open burn pit is to replicate the style of research conducted by the Illinois Fire Service Institute. The institute sets up a two-bedroom home layout and fills it with the typical furnishings found in a standard home. Once they set the “home” on fire, researchers are able to monitor toxins in the smoke, along with getting samples from the equipment worn by the firefighters, which shows the amount of toxins someone who is not wearing protective equipment would be exposed to.
Toxic substances identified in fire smoke in the United States include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, plasticizers, flame retardants, carbon monoxide (CO), hydrogen cyanide (HCN), hydrogen chloride, hydrogen fluoride, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, heavy metals, asbestos, and other respirable particulates, according to a paper on the findings, which was headed by Kenneth W. Fent of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. NIOSH is one of the agencies that assisted the Illinois group in conducting the study.
This kind of research is what is needed, according to an October 2011 report by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. The study used information about the burn pit at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, and came to the conclusion it was “unable say whether long-term health effects are likely to result from exposure to emissions from the burn pit at JBB due to lack of exposure information.”
The study, however, was limited by incomplete information. The study stated that studies conducted by DoD on the burn pit were “not of sufficient duration to see long-term effects” and a lack “of information on content of burn pit waste stream prevented modeling efforts for source apportionment.”
Price regularly attends the round table meetings in Washington, D.C., with members of Congress, VA representatives, veteran service officers and other nonprofit organizations on the subject of the illnesses caused by open burn pits. She said that sort of research is missing.
“And yet they won’t take the research that has already been done in order to give a veteran a presumptive status,” she said.
A presumptive status would allow the VA to automatically assume that exposure to an open burn pit is the cause of a veteran’s illness or cancer, which would allow the veteran to receive medical care and disability compensation.
The VA, however, says it does keep up with research conducted by outside agencies, according to VA spokeswoman Jessica Jacobsen.
“VA reviews research that has come from studies of firefighters, but the exposures of firefighters are very different from those experienced by military members exposed to burn pit emissions,” she said. “VA continually looks at medical research and follows trends related to medical conditions affecting veterans.
For example, VA’s New Jersey War Related Illness and Injury Study Center has an Airborne Hazards Center of Excellence that focuses on respiratory conditions and cardiopulmonary symptoms in deployed veterans, Jacobsen said. Additionally, there are multiple ongoing and extensive studies by DoD and VA looking at airborne hazards exposures. VA has contracted with the National Academy of Medicine to provide another comprehensive review of the burn pit data, scheduled to begin in late fiscal year 2018 or early fiscal year 2019. The Academy’s report is expected in June 2020.
The Herald reached out to DoD on June 26, requesting information on any burn pits still in use in Southwest Asia, but has yet to receive a response.
According to Price, an open burn pit is still in daily operation at Taji, Iraq, and DoD has admitted to at least one other burn pit in operation in Afghanistan.
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Some chemicals found in common house fires and the cancers they cause:
Arsenic — skin, lung and liver
Asbestos — lung, mesothelioma, larynx, gastrointestinal tract
Benzene — leukemia
Benzo[a]pyrene — lung, bladder, skin
Cadmium — lung
Formaldehyde — nasal sinuses, leukemia
Silica — lung
Tetrachloroethylene — cervix, esophagus, non-Hodgkin lymphoma
Source: World Health Organization, International Agency for Research on Cancer, Monographs Volume 98, Firefighting