Toxic smoke from so-called "burn pits", in which garbage is burned on US bases, made thousands of US soldiers sick.
Where to go with mountains of garbage if there is no or hardly any infrastructure? For a long time, the US Army had only one answer to this: open garbage pits, in which the garbage was burned. Smoke and toxic gases from the hundreds of "burn pits" on US bases harmed millions of army personnel, aid workers and locals, not counting, as we now know.
It was already noticeable years ago that young, fit ex-soldiers were increasingly suffering from serious or even fatal diseases after their deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan. Among them, cancers that are usually rare at a young age. So far, the United States has rarely recognized the diseases as consequential damage.
It started with a fire
Ironically, it all started with a burn pit in the USA: during the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001, several liters of aviation gasoline poured into the attacked buildings, along with everything else that was nearby burned. Many helpers are struggling with health damage and for their recognition by the state. The same goes for the veterans of the "War against Terror".
Batteries, electrical appliances, clothes, whole jeeps: no matter what it was, the US Army managed to put everything aside, doused it with aviation gasoline and set it on fire. An army base causes a lot of garbage. Former soldiers report thick clouds of smoke, some of which permanently plagued the bases.
Waste products in incineration pits include, among others: chemicals, paints, medical and human waste, metal/aluminum, ammunition and other unexploded ordnance, petroleum, petroleum and lubricant products, plastics and styrofoam, rubber, wood and discarded food, " the US Department of Veterans Affairs lists [in a fact sheet].
The consequences of uncontrolled waste incineration have long been known
Due to ignorance or lack of alternatives, the US Army ignored what has been known for decades: if various substances are burned under uncontrolled conditions, a number of toxic compounds are formed, especially if the combustion temperatures are low and the fire is poorly ventilated. Dioxins, furans, PFAS, many volatile organic chemicals, benzene and other toxic substances can be produced, the list is long. Apart from impregnating agents, metals, explosives or even just insect repellents, which the garbage already contained. Some burn pits in the Middle East burned for 20 years, sometimes around the clock.
To put it bluntly, this kind of waste disposal is like an ongoing chemical accident. The veterans organization IAVA refers to Burn Pits as the "Agent Orange of our generation".
Already having problems during use
Many members of the US Army, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, complained of coughing, breathing problems, eye and skin irritation during the missions. As a late consequence, the most common are asthma and other respiratory diseases. Thousands of the estimated 3.5 million veterans affected, according to the US Department of Defense, suffer from cancer.
The most common are skin, brain, lung, testicular, blood, prostate and blood cancers, as well as leukemia. Lymphomas and soft tissue sarcomas are also common, lists the nonprofit organization "Burn Pits 360". The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has so far rejected three quarters of all claims of those affected. "Burn Pits 360" and other organizations are fighting for the recognition of many diseases as war-related. On their webpages there are photos of emaciated sick people who only hold a few years old pictures of themselves in uniform in the camera. Survivors report why they are getting involved.
Few studies, little information, little help
A report of the American Academy of Sciences, which will be published in 2020 and is often quoted by the Veterans' Office, found that of 27 respiratory diseases examined, none had "sufficient evidence of a connection" with burn pits. In the case of symptoms such as chronic persistent cough, there is only "limited or suggestive evidence of a connection".
Judging by the fact that burn pits and their consequences have been known for at least 20 years, little else happened. Various veterans' organizations maintain lists of where and when the US Army operated open garbage incineration. Victims can register.
The US Army maintained hundreds of burn pits in many countries, especially in the Middle East.
There are few scientific studies on burn pits. Those that do exist were partly commissioned by the 'Office for Veterans Affairs', which has an interest in ensuring that as few late effects as possible are recognized. Some studies had methodological errors, reported "New Republic" in 2016. According to "nbc", the Pentagon announced at the beginning of 2021 that it would fund further studies.
Doctors who treat sufferers expect a wave of burn pit disease. However, medical personnel in the USA are often not informed about the dangers of burn pits or cannot assess their effects. In fact, some injured people did not know about the potentially fatal danger until shortly before their untimely death. Many complain that they feel poorly informed, for example that it would have been advisable to carry out regular check-ups.
A bill and too little information
In June 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Veterans Affairs introduced a bill to improve care for U.S. veterans who have been exposed to toxic substances. Soon both chambers of the US Parliament will vote on it.
So it is already difficult for former soldiers to assert their sufferings. There is little data on how many locals, contractors and non-military personnel suffered and are still suffering from the toxic effects.
Toxic mortgage for the future
There should be no more poison slingshots at US bases. Burn pits have been banned for years. Except in cases where there is no other way to dispose of the garbage accumulated on military bases. Which is still the case on many sites of the US Armed Forces. But even if burn pits are closed and replaced by better systems, they remain a toxic mortgage. The pits with the burnt remains remain. This is especially true in Afghanistan, where a number of US bases were quickly abandoned.
Some military bases that the US handed over to the Afghan security forces – which stopped working this month, instead of continuing to fight against a seemingly inevitable victory of the Taliban – contain toxic waste that may never be completely removed," wrote "Scientific American" at the end of August 2021. Which only partially reflects the level of pollution in several countries.
Help with cleaning is prohibited by law
Even if the withdrawal of US forces takes place in an orderly manner, there are obstacles to cleaning up. According to U.S. laws, the Department of Defense DoD is prohibited from "fulfilling requirements that are the responsibility of the host countries and are stipulated in the applicable international agreements" and spending money or other resources on this. Only the passing on of information about possible pollution and environmental hazards is permitted.
Anyone who follows the disputes that are being waged in Switzerland over the renovation of company premises and landfills may have an idea of how difficult renovations are then in an – often unstable and financially weak – crisis area.
When the US Army leaves, the toxic garbage remains
According to an analysis by the Department of Defense, this law has so far been used to provide only the "absolute minimum" of environmental measures at US bases abroad to restore a healthy environment.
What happens when environmental damage occurs and a host country or local relative does not have the influence or resources to demand compensation or damage limitation from the US military?", "Scientific American" quotes a work by Jennifer Neuhauser, still a judge with the US Army in 2015. "According to international law, there are very few enforcement mechanisms to force the US Armed Forces to solve these problems".