What’s Choking U.S. Troops? Feds Have No Idea
In a 2010 study of 80 soldiers who struggled to run two miles, half of them were huffing and puffing because of undiagnosed bronchiolitis.
And the feds have no idea why.
The military’s widespread use of open-air burn pits — massive heaps of Styrofoam, human waste and plastic water bottles, in flames around the clock — seemed to be the most obvious answer.
But results of a study published today by the Institute of Medicine, and commissioned by the Department of Veterans Affairs, are frustratingly inconclusive — largely because the military didn’t collect adequate data for researchers to do their jobs.
The team set out to determine whether the burn pits used to incinerate waste at military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan were culpable for the increased prevalence of respiratory, cardiovascular and neurological ailments afflicting recent veterans. But what they know after all that research is essentially what they knew at the study’s outset. First, that more and more troops are complaining of chronic health problems. And second, that the air quality in both combat zones was pretty awful to begin with.
Since 2001, cardiovascular problems among military personnel have soared from 65,520 to 91,013 in 2010. Neurological conditions have more than tripled, going from 9,688 to 32,667.
Some troops are so sure that burn pits caused their illnesses, they’ve already sued the contractors responsible for them: Close to 1,000 are currently in litigation against megaliths KBR and Halliburton, which were charged with overseeing some pits.
But burn pits aren’t the only suspect: With dust storms a common occurrence, soldiers spent plenty of time choking on cloudy air in Iraq and Afghanistan, which the report notes might be enough to cause “long-term health effects.” Not to mention that much of the dust was laden with neurotoxic elements, including chromium and iron.
Researchers studied air samples collected by military officials at Joint Base Balad between 2007 and 2009. They detected 51 chemicals and a plethora of particulate matter (caused by, for example, dust and exhaust fumes). The toxins and particulates found in the samples have been linked to, among others, the following health problems: Cardiovascular disease, asthma, adrenal, liver and kidney failure, birth defects, cancer, anemia and decreased function of the central nervous system.