Burn pits were large areas of land in which the U.S. military and its contractors burned waste generated by military bases in Southwest Asia and Djibouti during the post-9/11 Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF).
When and where were burn pits used?
Open air burn pits were used throughout the majority of all operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, between approximately 2001 and 2010, although some bases are still utilizing burn pits today. There is no list detailing exactly which bases operated burn pits, however, we do know that there was a burn pit at nearly every forward operating military base in Iraq and Afghanistan during OIF and OEF.
Due to the burn pits’ size and proximity to military bases, it is likely that many veterans stationed at these bases were exposed to the toxic smoke billowing from the fires. The burn pit at Joint Base Balad, for example, was estimated to be at least 10 acres in size and burned up to several hundred tons of waste per day.
What was burned?
Almost anything you can imagine. Essentially all waste generated from military bases were added to burn pits. Some of the materials burned included, but were not limited to: plastics, medical and human waste, chemicals such as paints and solvents, rubber, metal and aluminum cans, weapons and munitions, Styrofoam, tires, batteries, and pesticides. Military personnel and contractors used jet fuel to speed the burning of these materials, adding to the harmful chemicals emitted.
What was in the smoke?
Air samples collected at Joint Base Balad in Iraq have revealed the presence of:
- Particulate matter (PM), a complex blend of small particles and droplets of liquid, can pass through the throat and nose while a person is breathing to enter the lungs. These particles can cause serious health effects involving the heart and lungs.
- Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) are a group of more than 100 chemicals formed by incomplete burning of organic substances such as gas and coal. 17 different PAHs were found in the air samples tested at Joint base Balad.
- Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are chemicals emitted from materials such as paints or disinfectants in the form of gasses. These gasses can be easily inhaled by a person in the vicinity of an open-air burn pit.
- Toxic Organic Halogenated Dioxins and Furans are a group of toxic chemicals known to cause damage to the immune system, reproductive system, and many types of cancer. VA is well aware of the damage dioxins can cause because of its use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam war. 2,3,7,8 TCDD, the most toxic dioxin on the planet also found in Agent Orange, was present in the air at Joint Base Balad.
One half to two thirds of the individual chemicals found in burn pit smoke are known human carcinogens. The levels and presence of these chemicals varied by burn pit, depending on which materials were disposed of in them.
What kinds of disabilities are associated with exposure to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan?
We do not yet fully understand the long-term impact that exposure to burn pits can have on a person’s health. The mix of various chemicals found in air tests may produce unforeseen medical issues due to the synergistic effects these chemicals may have in combination with one another. There are a wide range of disabilities associated with burn pit exposure such as respiratory disabilities like constrictive bronchiolitis, autoimmune disorders, and an array of cancers.