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0000017b-35e5-df5e-a97b-35edaf770000Over 70,000 people in Michigan served in the U.S. armed services during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.Michigan Radio’s Beyond the Battlefield series takes a look at how post-9/11 veterans are faring. Beyond the Battlefield features, interviews and online video profiles, exploring issues like employment, entrepreneurship, and reintegration into civilian life. The series also looks at how Michiganders think state and federal governments are doing at addressing veterans' care, as well as the particular struggles female veterans encounter when returning home.

Researchers say we need to know more about how burn pits might be affecting veterans

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Especially in the early years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, soldiers burned their waste in big, open-air pits. They burned everything from tires, batteries, and plastic to human and medical waste.

Curtis Gibson is an Air Force veteran. He served in Afghanistan in late 2011.

“I’d see things floating in the air — burned papers — you see them floating through the air so you know you’re taking something in,” Gibson says.

He says he had a medical exam when he came home to Detroit.

“I went to the VA and had a pulmonary test done, and they said I did have decreased lung function,” he says.

Gibson says he's pretty healthy today, but he wonders if he was exposed to something that might make him sick when he’s older.

Credit Curtis Gibson
Curtis Gibson, Air Force veteran.

The potential for health effects from exposure to burn pits  

Dr. John Balmes is a Professor of Medicine at the University of California-San Francisco and a Professor of Environmental Health Sciences in the School of Public Health at UC-Berkeley. He was part of a committee that wrote a report for the Institute of Medicine on possible long-term health effects for veterans exposed to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The main health problem that has been associated with burn pits is constrictive bronchiolitis, which is a type of lung condition where the small airways in the lungs become scarred,” he says.

"The question is, at what level of exposure might there be harm from inhaling these materials?" Balmes says.

This finding comes from a study in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“That’s the strongest link in the literature with regard to burn pits and health outcomes,” he says. “But even that is... it’s a little bit of a weak link because it was a case series as opposed to a study of a large number of veterans exposed to burn pits.”

But he says exposure to burn pits warrants concern.

“There's no question that burn pit smoke is nasty,” he says. “There are carcinogens that were emitted, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, PAHs, which are particularly nasty, some of which are carcinogens and others are irritants to the respiratory tract. Lots of irritant gases, fine particulate (matter) — many substances that are harmful to the respiratory tract and some which, if absorbed through the respiratory tract, can have toxicity elsewhere. So there’s no question that the emissions were horrible.”

Credit U.S. Department of Defense
Soldier stands atop waste to be burned.

The next steps

Balmes says one thing that makes this research difficult is determining levels of exposure to the harmful chemicals in burn pit smoke.

“At what level of exposure might there be harm from inhaling these materials? And that’s the tricky part, because the only place where there was data about where they were monitoring exposures was in the Bagram base in Iraq,” he says.

Balmes says studies must take place over five to 30 years and follow-up reports should be done every five years.

“Because five to 10 years may be enough to document chronic respiratory problems, but cancers can take many years to develop after an exposure,” he says. “So that’s why I would continue to follow, you know, for decades. But I’d say at the 10 year point after deployment, we should have some more definitive information about chronic respiratory health.”

More information

If you're a veteran concerned about exposure to burn pits, you can sign up for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs open burn pit registry. There's this article from the VA: "Ten things veterans should know about burn pits" and this informational page on burn pits. You can also read this fact sheet on burn pit exposure from the U.S. Army Public Health Command.

And for more information from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, see this assessment of burn pits.

Lawmakers want to create a research center within the VA

In April, Congressman Dan Benishek (R-1st District) introduced the Toxic Exposure Research Act of 2015 (H.R. 1769, with a companion Senate Bill S. 901). It would do the following:

Directs the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to select a VA medical center to serve as the national center for research on the diagnosis and treatment of health conditions of the biological children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren of individuals exposed to toxic substances while serving as members of the Armed Forces that are related to such exposure.

It would also direct the Department of Defense to declassify documents "(other than documents that would materially and immediately threaten national security) related to any known incident in which at least 100 members of the Armed Forces were exposed to a toxic substance that resulted in at least one case of an associated disability."

Congressman Benishek says he introduced H.R. 1769 after meeting with a group of veterans in Cheyboygan.

"They brought up this toxic exposure to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, like during the Gulf War and more recent wars as well. They reminded me how Agent Orange wasn’t identified as a toxic substance until 20 years after Vietnam. They want me to look into what’s going on with these burn pits and toxic exposure and potential for damage to service members' children," he says.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.