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WASHINGTON — Military health officials who have steadfastly denied that burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan cause serious health problems will launch a massive study next year to see if they’re wrong.

Officially, the Pentagon still says the toxic smoke from the pits is not to blame for the fatal cancers and respiratory illnesses suffered by some troops upon returning from the war zones. But Dr. Craig Postlewaite, director of the Defense Department’s Force Health Protection programs, said that researchers “are keeping the door open” on the issue.

“When we look at the health outcome data of those exposed [to the burn pits] we’re not seeing a great increase in respiratory illnesses,” he said in an interview with Stars and Stripes this week. “But we’ve become aware in the last several months that there have been a handful of conditions diagnosed by military physicians where they’ve indicated there could be an inhalational exposure cause.”

That doesn’t mean burn pits are to blame, he said — dust and sand, cigarette smoke or other unknown airborne particulates could be at fault. However, he said, it does indicate that more research is needed on the issue.

The move comes amid criticism that Pentagon officials have overlooked dozens of serious illnesses related to combat zone burn pits — used at numerous bases to dispose of everyday trash, broken furniture and even excess combat equipment.

So far, 22 class-action lawsuits related to alleged burn pit illnesses have been filed in federal courts, covering both contractors and soldiers exposed to the pits. Members of Congress have pushed military officials to respond to anecdotal reports of leukemia, lung tumors and other unusual cancers in troops stationed near some of the largest burn pits.

Most of the department’s current data on the pits’ acrid smoke comes from a 2007 study of the air quality around Balad Air Base in Iraq. Critics have blasted the methodology and thoroughness of the study, and Postlewaite admitted that the research provides only a snapshot of airborne particulate matter at that one location.

“Our previous assessment did not consider combined exposures, whether the dust and smoke together might cause problems,” he said. “It did not consider genetic susceptibility. If there are people being harmed by the smoke, it’s probably a relatively small number of people. But what we care about most is the health of our people.”

Joe Chenelly, spokesman for the Disabled Veterans of America, applauded the decision to further research the inhalation illnesses but “we’d like to see these sick troops getting more help right away and their families getting help right away.”

The group has compiled a list of more than 500 servicemembers suffering from what they believe are burn pit-related illnesses.

“We’d like to see every one of these burn pits shut down today,” he said. “The study costs will likely be more than what it would cost to get proper incinerators at these bases.”

Postlewaite said officials are still organizing sites and collection details for the study, but he expects a formal report on the data by the end of 2010. Both the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center and the Department’s Deployment Health Research Center are involved in the effort.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has also promised to investigate the long-term health effects of exposure to the smoke, although the department does not currently recognize burn pit exposure as a presumed combat-connected illness.

In August, President Barack Obama promised the issue would not become another “Agent Orange,” the name for herbicides used heavily during the Vietnam War and later linked to serious health problems in civilians and U.S. troops. Veterans groups have fought with military agencies for years over health benefits related to that chemical exposure.

Some previous Stripes stories on the burn pit issue:

November 6, 2009Families, DOD spar over dangers of burn pit smokeAugust 4, 2009Obama says burn pits won't become another Agent OrangeMay 3, 200925 of 41 ordered incinerators are now in place on Iraq basesApril 30, 2009Suits against KBR allege burn pit fumes affected troopsNovember 7, 2008Open-air trash burning in Iraq a hot issue


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