NEWS | Nov. 2, 2011

Study: No relationship found between service members' health and burn pits

By Lisa Daniel American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON - No evidence was found between exposure to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, and long-term health problems, according to a study released here Monday by the Institute of Medicine.

A 14-member committee from the institute, a 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 said.

The report also said 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 Veterans Affairs Department officials 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 at Joint Base 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 wild land and chemical fires - and incinerator workers. They determined, however, that the information was still 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, said R. Craig Postlewaite, the department's chief of health assurance.

"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 and is drawing down the number in Afghanistan, Postlewaite said. In both areas 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 burn pits.

The committee's review of information from Joint Base Balad suggests that service in Iraq or Afghanistan 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 mainly because of the high ambient concentrations of particulate matter, according to the report.

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.

Postlewaite said the Defense Department routinely analyzes air, water and soil samples before troops deploy, but sometimes that is not enough.