Military Burn Pits: 'Inconclusive' Evidence It Is Unhealthy

PHOTO: U.S. Marines burn human waste as they clean their lavatories at the Musa Qala District Center base, Jan. 17, 2011.PlayDmitry Kostyukov/AFP/Getty Images
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Ret. Spc. Edward Adams may be one of the first soldiers whose medical chart indicates by a military physician that his lung disease was caused by toxins inhaled through open burn pits while deployed in Iraq.

From July 2006 to October 2007, Adams, 35, of Plattsburgh, N.Y., served as an avionics repair technician on Camp Speicher in Tikrit, Iraq. While on base, Adams said he inhaled thick plumes of smoke from open pits that regularly burned material and human waste, ammunition, debris and chemicals.

The pits, operated by government contractors who worked for KBR and Halliburton, were located less than a mile from the combat housing units where Adams stayed. The pits burned day and night, and the smoke billowed downwind, right in the direction of his quarters, he said.

Within six months, Adams began to feel sick.

"I started feeling lethargic. I had a hard time breathing," said Adams. "My run [times] were slowing down."

Adams is one out nearly a thousand service members and government contractors who have filed a series of more than 45 lawsuits against KBR and Halliburton, which reportedly involved in overseeing many burn pits, including the one near Adams' housing unit.

Burn Pits in Iraq and Afghanistan Blamed for Soldiers' Respiratory Woes

A growing number of soldiers who have served early on in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan have now been diagnosed with deployment-related lung disease that comes from inhaling toxic waste from sources like dust storms, combat smoke and burn pits.

Joint Base Balad located in Iraq, which contains one of the largest open air pits, has been implicated by many soldiers as the reason for their respiratory ailments, ranging from constrictive bronchiolitis to rare forms of blood cancer.

While most bases in Iraq and Afghanistan at some point during the war contained open burn pits, a new report suggests there's not enough evidence to directly link respiratory problems of soldiers, especially those who spent time on Joint Base Balad, to fumes emitted by the burn pits.

The report, released today by the Institute of Medicine, a health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, analyzed past research, including data of air quality at Joint Base Balad collected by the U.S. Department of Defense. Insufficient data and limited research made it difficult for the IOM committee to draw hard conclusions, the report stated.

The committee called for long-term studies that would track soldiers from the time of their deployment to Joint Base Balad over many years and monitor their development of chronic diseases.

"Such a study will also help physicians and other scientists determine if the burn pits contributed to chronic diseases experienced by armed service personnel after being exposed to the burn pits," the American Thoracic Society, a nonprofit organization that has followed the issue among military service members, said a written statement.

The U.S. Department of Defense, which sponsored the report, states that it has shut down all burn pits in Iraq – replacing some with closed incinerators -- and plans to do the same in Afghanistan by the end of the year.

"What the report says or doesn't say doesn't change the fact that what happened to me came from the burn pits and nothing else," said Adams, who is now retired from the military.

While the data is not so clear cut, mounting evidence suggests that a growing number already exposed to fumes from burn pits may later develop later chronic and irreparable diseases, according to Dr. Robert Miller, associate professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University.

Military Burn Pits Blamed for Vets' Respiratory Problems

"The associations that were found in some studies [reviewed by the IOM committee] can't be overlooked," said Miller.

Miller's study, published July in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that nearly half of 80 soldiers in Fort Campbell, Ky., who could not pass a standard two mile run because of breathing problems, were diagnosed with constrictive bronchiolitis. More than 80 percent of those with constrictive bronchiolitis had been exposed to dust storms, and more than 60 percent had been exposed to burn pits.

"We did not have data that said these guys were sick because of burn pits," said Miller. "We have to follow these guys very closely."

Standard tests that are used to detect respiratory diseases, such as a pulmonary function test, may not pick up the soldier's condition.

Adam said throughout the deployment, doctors chalked up his coughing and shortness of breath to asthma he may have developed from the dust. Even when he returned stateside, his pulmonary function test results were clear.

"There are a number of them that are concerned that they're written off as being normal because their pulmonary function tests are normal," said Miller. "Some are concerned they're not eligible for disability, because even though they're not deployable, their pulmonary tests are normal."

Eight months after returning stateside, Adams underwent a CT scan which detected small lesions in his lungs. Adams' doctor immediately asked if he had been exposed to smoke from burn pits.

"I never even brought up the burn pits," said Adams. "I didn't think about it."

For many who are more commonly diagnosed with constrictive bronchiolitis, not even a CT scan can detect the disease. Only a lung biopsy works, Miller said.

"We're going to have to find a system to test for these lung disorders without telling everyone they need to go through a lung bippsy," said Miller.

Miller suggested that soldiers undergo a baseline pulmonary function test pre-deployment. Soldiers should then be administered another test once they return home to compare the results for any changes, he said.

Adams, a father of two, said he struggles to physically keep up with his young children.

"My lungs are scarred for the rest of my life," he said. "It could never get better for me. The damage is done."