The Faceless Enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan that Has Harmed U.S. Vets: Burn Pits

Saturday, November 02, 2013
Burn pit at Bald Air Base in Iraq (photo: Julianne Showalter, U.S. Air Force)

If roadside bombs and insurgent ambushes didn’t injure or kill them, American soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan were regularly confronted with another harmful threat: burn pits.


At the hundreds of military bases set up in both countries, the U.S. military often resorted to disposing of waste by burning it in open-air pits. Everything from human waste to dead animals to plastics to asbestos and more were thrown into them, doused with jet fuel, and ignited.


The result was thick, black plumes of smoke that filled the air with not just foul smells, but extremely unhealthy particles inhaled by soldiers.


“The military’s burn pits emitted particulate matter laced with heavy metals and toxins—like sulfur dioxide, arsenic, dioxins, and hydrochloric acid—that are linked to serious health ailments,” according to an investigative report by The Verge's Katie Drummond.


One veteran, Dan Meyer, told Drummond: “I remember waking up with soot on me; you’d come out and barely see the sun because it was so dark from the smoke.”


“We always called it ‘black snow,’” said the former Air Force service member who now needs an oxygen tank to breathe.


Military commanders authorized the use of burn pits, even though the Pentagon has known for decades that this disposal method is wrought with problems.


“In a series of waste-management guidelines published in 1978, the DOD cautioned that open-air burning was not a safe option for waste disposal, and should only be used ‘[when] there is no other alternative,’” Drummond wrote.


As recently as several months ago, a number of burn pits were still actively being used by the U.S. military in Afghanistan, according to Drummond’s report.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

The Ring of Fire: Why Our Military’s Toxic Burn Pits are Making Soldiers Sick (by Katie Drummond, The Verge)

Veterans Are Sick Because the Military Dumped Trash in Massive Burn Pits (by Eric Levenson, Atlantic Wire)

VA Scientist Resigned over Alleged Cover-Up of Burn Pit Danger Data (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Leaked Memo Supports Claim that Veterans Imperiled by Burn Pits in Afghanistan (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)


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