Defense bill tasks DOD to map out where troops could've been exposed to toxins from burn pits

In a 2004 photo, smoke billows in from all sides as Sgt. Richard Ganske, 84th Combat Engineer Battalion, pushes a bulldozer deep into the flames of a burn pit at LSA Anaconda, Iraq


By STEVE BEYNON | STARS AND STRIPES  Published: December 12, 2019

WASHINGTON — The House on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed a $738 billion defense bill that includes two key provisions to eliminate existing burn pits and require the Defense Department to map out where troops were exposed to toxic fumes.

The two provisions introduced by Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., could set the foundation for veterans to claim disabilities after falling ill to health hazards caused by burn pits in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and Egypt.

"We took an important step toward ending the military’s use of toxic burn pits and helping burn pit exposed veterans get the care and benefits they need,” Ruiz said. 

The Defense Department banned most burn pits in combat zones amid a whirlwind of lawsuits and claims from post-9/11 veterans that their health took a toll after exposure. Now the military mostly uses clean-burning incinerators. But the Pentagon’s policy gives wiggle room in areas where burn pits are the only feasible way of getting rid of waste. In places where troops are operating in austere conditions installing incinerators might not be possible.

In an April 2019 report to Congress, the Defense Department acknowledged burn pits are a health risk to troops. The report found there are nine burn pits still in operation — seven are in Syria and there’s one in Afghanistan and another in Egypt, which are the burn pits that Ruiz’s provision sets to eliminate.

However, even if the Defense Department compiled a list of burn pits, there could be a number of dead ends with the data. But without any formal mapping, it can be difficult for veterans to prove they served near a burn pit.

“[The provision] helps the veteran pay attention and identify if they were exposed to burn pits and prove to the VA they were exposed so they can get care,” Ruiz said.

Burn pits aren’t just massive piles of trash. Even after waste disposal became more regulated, troops on smaller forward operating bases and outposts would still have to burn trash and human waste in some cases. During the invasions and early days of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, burn pits were one of the only ways to get rid of waste. But listing out random locations where troops operated could be difficult.

But Ruiz said his provision would require the DoD to list all burn pits, including ones in remote areas and smaller bases.

Last week, the Center for New American Security, a bipartisan think tank in Washington, mapped out burn pits in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq using Pentagon data.

Kayla Williams, an Iraq War veteran and researcher for the project, underscored the military’s air quality data is dodgy at best, saying there hasn’t been a thorough job at testing air quality. While the map notes large bases, it missed potentially dozens of forward operating bases and combat outposts overseas, from which as few as 30 troops might operate. The researchers noted the DoD wasn't sending a lot of air-quality testers up mountains in Afghanistan under enemy fire to check the burn pits used by soldiers.

“Somebody like me – I was in Iraq in 2003,” Williams said Dec. 4 to a group of reporters. “There is some information here on the short-term health risks I may have been exposed to – much less on the potential long-term health risks. Virtually no information is here.”

Ruiz said he believes the DoD has adequate information on burn pit locations.

“The Department of Defense has been very coy and absent about discussions on this and the information they have been giving out has been half baked,” he said. “I believe they absolutely know where burn pits were used”

Some veteran advocates and lawmakers have likened the health hazards burn pits pose to post-9/11 veteran to the chemical herbicide Agent Orange in the Vietnam War. Unlike exposure to Agent Orange, the Department of Veterans Affairs doesn’t consider any disabilities automatically associated with exposure to burn pit smoke, saying the research does not show evidence of long-term health problems. 

Some troops exposed to smoke from burn pits have attributed medical conditions, such as respiratory issues and cancer, to the toxic fumes. The VA reviews burn-pit claims on a case-by-case basis.

Twitter: @StevenBeynon

In a 2008 photo, Senior Airman Frances Gavalis, 332nd Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron equipment manager, tosses unserviceable uniform items into a burn pit in Iraq.