What to do with the solid waste an army creates as it passes through is a question without a simple solution. The U.S. Army’s answer, at least in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been simply to burn it.
As a result, soldiers who regularly breathed fumes from so-called burn pits returned home complaining of respiratory distress. A new bill, H.R. 2237, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, would compel the Department of Veterans Affairs to create a center devoted to the diagnosis and treatment of health conditions relating to exposure to burn pits.
The bill follows a report issued in February by John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, that blames the Pentagon for not having an effective waste disposal plan when Operation Enduring Freedom began in 2001.
The Department of Defense “had been aware for years,” Sopko wrote, of the damage burn pits could do after long-term exposure.
“It is indefensible that U.S. military personnel, who are already at risk of serious injury and death when fighting the enemy, were put at further risk from the potentially harmful emissions from the use of open air burn pits,” Sopko wrote.
If you’d like a definition of “solid waste,” Sopko’s report notes that batteries and tires were among the detritus burned and then inhaled by U.S. soldiers, along with other known hazardous items.
“Ultimately though, the biggest cause of inadequate oversight in Afghanistan may well be a lack of commitment,” Sopko said during a May 2014 speech at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “Despite promises and statements to the media and Congress, oversight is still not viewed as mission critical by bureaucrats responsible for carrying out this important mission and protecting our tax dollars.”
Recently, Sen. Richard Blumenthal co-sponsored a similar measure, S. 901, called the Toxic Exposure Research Act of 2015, that also seeks to compel the Secretary of Defense to declassify documents related to incidents in which members of the military were exposed to toxic chemicals.
Blumenthal and Esty are hosting a roundtable discussion on the effects of burn pits at 11 a.m. Friday at the Student Center at Naugatuck Valley Community College.
“We know so little about the effects of toxic exposures on veterans: whether it’s depleted uranium, pollutants from burn pits, or nerve gas in unexploded ordinance, we only know that the modern battlefield has perils even for the veteran who hasn’t been directly exposed to combat fire,” Blumenthal wrote in a recent email to supporters. “These pernicious toxic wounds can affect not only them, but their children and grandchildren — in the form of birth defects, blood and brain cancers, and other insidious conditions resulting from poisonous contaminants.”
Jordan Fenster is an award-winning journalist. He lives with his family in Fairfield County. He can be reached by or @JordanFenster on Twitter.
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