32 Tumors and More: Middle East War Veterans Getting Strange Ailments

The smoke and soot from burning trash is being blamed for lasting illnesses.

U.S. Army soldiers watch garbage burn in a burn pit at Forward Operating Base Azzizulah in Maiwand District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, on February 4, 2013. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Reuters)

Nov 11, 2013· 3 MIN READ
A former journalist for The Associated Press and Miami Herald, she reported from Latin America for Time, Businessweek, and Financial Times.

When Master Sgt. Jessey Baca arrived at Iraq’s Joint Base Balad in 2007, the first thing he noticed was the air—a bluish cloud hanging over the area, ash swirling like snow, and the stink.

“It was a very disgusting, oil-based, trashy type smell,” he recalled.

The source was a 10-acre fire pit where 200 tons of trash a day—including paints, metal, tires, plastics, and human waste—was burned, using jet fuel as an accelerant. The open pit was next to the facility where Baca worked on F-16 aircraft. Like others in his unit, he soon fell sick with burning sinuses and a hacking cough.

The more serious illnesses didn’t start until he returned home to Albuquerque, N.M., in 2008. He had trouble breathing, along with a host of other unexplained symptoms. Two years later, he was diagnosed with constrictive bronchiolitis, scarred and inflamed airways in the lungs, a rare disease often caused by breathing in airborne toxins.

The 53-year-old also has 32 tumors and many other medical conditions—and immediately remembered the trash fire when looking back on his life to figure out what may have caused the turn in his health.

“Anything and everything went in it,” he said. “It was going all the time.”

The last of the 77 burn pits in Iraq were shut down in 2010; three pits still operate under restrictions in Afghanistan, but many returning soldiers—thousands, by some estimates—have been left with chronic, debilitating, and sometimes terminal illnesses they believe were caused by breathing in noxious pit fumes.

Getting medical benefits for the disease has been an uphill struggle for some, and legal avenues have reached a dead end for many soldiers. Lawsuits representing 57 individual and class action claims against defense contractors Halliburton and Kellogg Brown & Root, which operated many of the burn pits, were dismissed earlier this year when a federal judge ruled that agencies working for the government cannot be held liable in combatant warfare, the same as the government.

Both the V.A. and the Department of Defense maintain there is insufficient evidence directly linking fume exposure and illnesses, which could also be related to environmental conditions, such as sand and dust, or other factors including pre-existing health conditions. However, they said in statements that they are committed to caring for these veterans.

Former soldiers are now hopeful they’ll get more attention. In January, the V.A. is scheduled to open a registry for veterans suffering the adverse effects of pit exposure, under a law signed earlier this year. By enrolling in the registry, vets will be medically evaluated and updated about studies and treatments, and the V.A. will be able to track how many soldiers were possibly affected. In a statement, the V.A. said data shared with the Department of Defense will not include personal identifiers.

Active-duty soldiers with symptoms will be able to sign up without fear that they could be declared unfit and discharged. The V.A. has similar registries for vets exposed to other environmental hazards, such as Vietnam-era herbicide Agent Orange.

“It’s a tiny step. Hopefully, it will help get soldiers their benefits quicker,” said Dina McKenna, the widow of Sgt. Bill McKenna. The New York resident died of lymphoma in 2009 after two tours in Iraq, including one tour in which he drove trucks of waste—ranging from regular trash to dog carcasses—to a burn pit.

The V.A. is also embarking on a longitudinal study of burn-pit-exposure health effects, as recommended in a 2011 study by the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine. The study did not definitively link illnesses to the burn pits but noted the need for research that monitored a cohort of former soldiers over time. The V.A. is currently evaluating a pilot proposal to determine how many participants will be needed.

Meanwhile, a bill was introduced in Congress this summer that would award $150 million over five years to fund three academic medical centers to study the effects of burn-pit exposure.

For chronically ill soldiers and their families, the moves are welcome but small solace. McKenna said she remembers her husband constantly asking her to send him hard candy and mouthwash because he couldn’t get the stench of the air out of his mouth, as well as baby wipes because the shower water stank.

When her husband collapsed after returning home, doctors found a massive tumor around his lungs and heart and said toxic chemical exposure was the only explanation for such a huge, rapid-growing lesion, she said.

“I want the people responsible to know that it was wrong to let those pits burn for that long and that close to people,” said his widow, who has established a foundation in her husband’s name to raise money for military families struggling to pay medical bills while they wait for benefits.

The military now limits the type of trash that can be burned in open air to municipal-type waste. One of the three remaining burn pits in Afghanistan is slated to close by year-end, and the other two eventually, said Elissa Smith, a spokeswoman for the defense department.

Incinerators, which release lower levels of pollutants into the air because they burn trash at higher temperatures, and recycling programs have replaced many pits. But it took years of persistent complaints from soldiers and nearby residents in Iraq and Afghanistan to get safer methods of waste disposal.

Air tests from 2004 to 2007 showed pollutants from burn pit emissions were at acceptable thresholds, although incinerators were starting to come on line in 2007, and then contractual issues held up the installation of many incinerators, according to a report from the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine.

A burn-pit-type operation would be illegal in the United States, noted Anthony Wexler, director of the Air Quality Research Center at the University of California, Davis.

Although soldiers were exposed to many dangerous pollutants that could cause illnesses, the trash fires were one of the worst.

“The burn pits were terrible,” he said.

Baca can no longer work as an avionics technician for the New Mexico Air National Guard because of his ailments; he now crisscrosses the country talking to soldiers and veterans about his experience and advocating for better treatment for those suffering from burn-pit exposure.

“I don’t have regrets. I did my duty,” Baca said. “But it’s pretty frustrating for me and my family. It could have been prevented.”