Study Finds No Evidence of Health Problems From Burn Pits
By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 31, 2011 An Institute of Medicine study released today found no evidence between exposure to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan and long-term health problems.
A 14-member committee of the institute, the nonprofit health research arm of the National Academy of Sciences, could neither prove nor disprove that service members’ exposure to burning trash piles in Iraq and Afghanistan could cause long-term health problems, and recommended that more studies be done, a summary of the report says.
The report further states that ambient air pollution may pose greater health risks than the abundance of chemicals emitted from military burn pits.
The study was done at the request of the Veterans Affairs Department after some service members, veterans and Congress members expressed concerns about the safety of people who were in the vicinity of the burn pits, especially in the early days of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, when the contents of the pits were less regulated.
The committee focused its research on air samplings from a burn pit in Balad, Iraq, where safety questions were raised. The samplings were taken in 2007 and 2009. Because there is virtually no data on health outcomes from the chemical mixtures found at the pit, the committee sought information on similar chemical exposures to people most like those in the military: firefighters -- including those with exposure to wildland and chemical fires -- and incinerator workers. They determined, however, that the information still was insufficient to draw a conclusion about an association between the air samplings and long-term health outcomes.
The issue has been studied extensively in the past few years and there has been no finding of a causal relationship, R. Craig Postlewaite, the department’s chief of health assurance, said in an Oct. 27 interview with American Forces Press Service and the Pentagon Channel.
“The toxicology isn’t there; the science isn’t there,” he said.
Still, Postlewaite said, the department is committed to studying the matter, and will do further studies with VA to provide for longer follow up with exposed troops, a better assessment of exposures, and to fill in data gaps.
“We acknowledge there could be short-term, acute health effects” from the burn pits, he said, and it is plausible that some people could be adversely affected in the long term -- but the studies have yet to show that.
The military stopped using burn pits in Iraq in 2009, Postlewaite said, and is drawing down the number in Afghanistan. In both areas, he said, no other options were available for waste removal, especially early on in military operations there. “We now have strict regulations about what can go into burn pits and where they are located,” he said.
The committee found that local air pollution may be more of a factor in health problems than the burning pits.
“The committee’s review of the literature and the data from [Balad] suggests that service in Iraq or Afghanistan -- that is, a broader consideration of air pollution than exposure only to burn pit emissions -- might be associated with long-term health effects, particularly in highly exposed populations such as those who worked at the burn pit or susceptible populations -- for example, those who have asthma -- mainly because of the high ambient concentrations of particulate matter,” the report says.
The Defense Department routinely analyzes air, water and soil samples before troops deploy, but sometimes that is not enough, Postlewaite said.
“We send our people all over the world, … and sometimes they end up in situations where there is a potential [environmental] health risk we have little control over,” he said.