Burn Pits: The New 'Agent Orange' That the Media Has Failed to Expose

The U.S. media has failed to expose the civilian toll of recent wars by largely ignoring burn pits’ toxic effects on local people, a U.S. researcher argues in a new report, suggesting the burn pits are this generation’s Agent Orange.

The coverage gap helps legitimize war and overlooks the undeniable humanitarian impacts, said Eric Bonds, an assistant professor of sociology and researcher at the University of Mary Washington.

During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, things such as plastics, Styrofoam, electronics and unexploded weapons were burned in large pits, sending toxics into the air and people’s lungs. Bonds surveyed major U.S. newspapers from 2007 to 2014, and found that of 49 stories that mentioned wartime burn pits, only one mentioned civilian impacts on par with that of soldiers.

This “silence and selective attention” of the U.S. media extends to the U.S. government and researchers who are well aware of what toxics in the air might do to local citizens, said Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, an independent environmental toxicologist who studies the environmental toll of recent Middle East conflicts.

“This makes me, as a public health researcher, feel extremely uneasy,” said Savabieasfahani, who won the 2015 Rachel Carson prize for her research in the Middle East.

In comparing the open pit burning to Agent Orange used during Vietnam, Bonds points out the U.S. government has performed some small scale cleanup of Agent Orange-contaminated areas, but has never made amends with the Vietnamese who were most affected and said the burn pits are on the same track.

“Even as the U.S. government establishes a ‘burn pit registry’ to study the impacts of toxic pollution on soldiers, it is on course to leave Iraqi and Afghan victims exposed to burning-trash fumes unacknowledged and uncompensated,” Bonds wrote in his study published this month in the journal Environmental Politics.

As U.S. soldiers have returned home over the past decade many have complained of various illnesses—fatigue, respiratory problems, rashes, muscle pain—linked to the pits.

Stories have trickled out on such impacts to soldiers but rarely mention that the pollution doesn’t stop at military borders or barricades and would similarly impact local people, Bonds said, adding that drawing attention to soldiers' illness is important and should continue.

Savabieasfahani has found links between the burn pits and birth defects in nearby Iraq communities. Also, along with colleagues, she found the same type of magnesium and titanium in the hair samples of children with neurological disorders in Hawijah, a city taken over by U.S. military in 2003, as was found in the lung tissues of U.S soldiers that served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The U.S. military burned waste there from 2003 to 2010.

Savabieasfahani, along with researchers from the University of Washington, is petitioning the U.S. government to bolster the federal burn pit registry, and provide health care to both veterans and the residents of Iraq and Afghanistan exposed to burn pits. 

“The U.S. military has a poor environmental record and an even poorer record for cleaning up its bases, especially those located outside of the United States,” the authors wrote, calling the Pentagon the “largest polluter on earth.”

Bonds said the lack of media coverage is important because it’s how people learn about the world.

“A lot of time when we think of Iraq or Afghanistan, we think of them as war zones and not places where people are living, working, trying to raise families,” he said.

“Unfortunately this [lack of coverage] is symptomatic of that thinking.”

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