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Is the Pentagon Poisoning Afghan Civilians?

In Afghanistan, the U.S. military disposes of garbage in open burn pits. Are toxic clouds from these sites making everyone sick?
 
 
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 This article first appeared at Guernica.

Their shelves hold Army pants, boots and knives sold to them, they say, by Afghans working on the base, gifts to them from American soldiers but more likely stolen. Either way, soldiers confiscate these items on sight. The shopkeepers sit in the shade watching traffic inch past, motorcycles weaving between cars. They hear the saws and hammers from nearby construction. They watch steam rise from restaurant kitchens.

Sipping tea, the shopkeepers wait for my questions while keeping a wary eye on the passing soldiers. What is it like living so close to an American base? I want to know. I expect them to grumble about the soldiers searching their shops. Instead, they tell me about a strange odor they say comes from the base. It smells of plastic.


The odor, the Afghans said, comes from a burn pit, a huge open dump site used on U.S. bases to consume mountains of trash, unleashing harmful chemicals. Burning plastic, for instance, releases carcinogenic substances that may increase the risk of heart disease and respiratory ailments, cause rashes and damage the nervous system.

Computers, television sets and mobile phones release cadmium, lead, and mercury, which can also damage the nervous system and the kidneys.

As of last year, the United States Central Command estimates that there were 114 open burn pits in Afghanistan. According to a public information officer at Bagram Airbase who asked not to be identified, there were twenty-two burn pits in Iraq as of 2010. Used since the beginning of both wars, burn pits have consumed metals, Styrofoam, human waste, electronics and even, in some cases, vehicles and body parts. Diesel and jet fuel keep the pits burning, adding their own mix of dangerous elements.

There are more than 100,000 troops currently deployed in Afghanistan—and thousands more private contractors—and the Department of Defense estimates that each soldier and contractor generates about ten pounds of solid waste per day.

Military officials declined to comment on the decision to use open burn pits, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency bans open pit burning of materials that discharge toxic chemicals and whose smoke can contribute to the risk of cancer, asthma and reproductive problems. The EPA also prohibits open pit burning grass and leaves, food and petroleum products such as plastic, rubber and asphalt.

In Afghanistan and Iraq the expediency of burning trash trumps environmental and health concerns. In a memo dated December 20, 2006, Bioenvironmental Engineering Flight Commander and Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Darrin L. Curtis warned of acute and chronic health risks posed by the Balad Airbase burn pit in Iraq.

Whether through a lack of forethought, a desire for expediency, or the logistical demands of the battlefield, the military chose burn pits as its means to destroy trash. And there is a lot of it. There are more than 100,000 troops currently deployed in Afghanistan—and thousands more private contractors—and the Department of Defense (DoD) estimates that each soldier and contractor generates about ten pounds of solid waste per day.

Veterans Administration and private physicians have seen a significant increase in respiratory problems in soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Other physical problems among war veterans include shortness of breath, headaches and coughing up blood. Almost all of these soldiers had exposure to burn pits as well as battlefield smoke and dust storms. It seems unlikely that the thousands of Iraqis and Afghans working on U.S. military bases or living nearby have escaped such debilitating ailments themselves.

 
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