Backing away from steadfast official denial, the U.S. military's senior health protection official said Monday that some service m embers might suffer long-term medical problems as a direct result of exposure to smoke and fumes from open-air burn pits scattered throughout Iraq and Afghanistan.
Craig Postlewaite, director of Force Health Protection and Readiness Programs, said that while scientific evidence has yet to prove the link, the personal stories of veterans coming forward to report long-term health problems have convinced him of the connection.
"We feel at this point in time that it's quite plausible -- in fact likely -- that there are a small number of people that have been affected with longer-term health problems," Postlewaite said Monday in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune.
As recently as last month, Postlewaite had maintained the Defense Department's years-old position on the issue, telling Stars and Stripes that "only minor, temporary effects have been identified with the burn pit smoke." In July he told the Military Times that an assessment of the burn pit at the largest U.S. facility in Iraq, Joint Air Base Balad, found "no indication of any long-term health risks in personnel."
It was the sight and smell of the Balad pit that led an environmental engineer from Hill Air Force Base to write a memo calling the acres-large inferno "an acute health hazard."
In the memo, Air Force officer Darrin Curtis warned that dozens of toxins, including arsenic, formaldehyde and hydrogen cyanide, were going up in smoke at the Balad pit. U.S. service members and contractors were burning hundreds of tons of weapons, chemicals, plastics -- and even amputated limbs from the nearby theater hospital -- each week.
Curtis' memo set off widespread speculation that smoke from the Balad pit, and possibly others, was to blame for myriad health problems faced by returning veterans. But Curtis, who has since separated from the Air Force, told The Tribune he didn't intend to be a whistleblower -- he only wanted to help loosen the bureaucratic purse strings holding back money for a long-promised incinerator.
"It wasn't one of those 'God and country' things," Curtis said. "I wasn't trying to sacrifice myself. It was 2006. We'd gotten there in 2003. It had been forever and these things weren't getting fixed. My understanding was that there were different allowances for money depending on whether something was a health issue or wasn't a health issue, and I wrote the memo just so that everyone would know it was a health issue."
Relying on air and blood samples taken in early 2006, however, the military contended it had no reason to believe service members exposed to the Balad pit would suffer anything more than short-term respiratory problems and irritated eyes.
That position ran contrary to the contention of hundreds who had served at Balad and were dealing with long-term respiratory illnesses and other more serious problems.
Last month, Jill Wilkins began collecting such stories on a Facebook page devoted to those exposed to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wilkins' husband, Kevin, served his first tour of duty in Balad in 2006. He died of a brain tumor in 2008. Dozens of others who have posted on Wilkins' site have told of loved ones who suffered or died from rare forms of blood disorders and cancer, including leukemia.
"It can't all be coincidence," said one of the site's members, JoAnne Och, whose son Steven is one of several people named on the site who died of Acute myeloid leukemia shortly after returning from Balad. "For one thing, you don't send sick troops over there, so for all of these people to be coming home with these very serious problems, there's something causing that."
The change in the military's position on the issue comes shortly after President Barack Obama pledged that health concerns related to burn pits would not become another Agent Orange.
"Nobody is served by denial or sweeping things under the rug," Obama told a roundtable of military reporters in August.
Regardless of past denials, the military has taken steps to clean up its waste disposal operations. Since 2006, it has purchased and installed dozens of incinerators for use in Iraq, including at Balad. In October, Obama signed a law prohibiting open-air burning of medical and hazardous waste except in which the secretary of defense deems there is no alternative.
Postlewaite declined to say what diseases he believed were most likely tied to burn pit exposure, saying it "would be premature for me to comment."
But he said studies are under way to try to determine the most likely related illnesses. "You've got to do some preliminary studies to generate the hypotheses that then you would test with larger studies," he said.
Postlewaite said he doesn't know how long it will take to test his new suspicions. Complicating matters, he said, is the possibility that exposure to smoke from the pits wasn't the only factor making people sick -- it may have been a combination of exposure and other causes that led to long-term illnesses.
"Our best guess is that there are some individuals that have an increased susceptibility to the smoke," he said. "It could be genetic or some pre-existing health condition... and it also could have been based on combined exposures."
At this point, he said, "we really don't know."
The medical aftermath of the first U.S. war in Iraq taught military and political leaders they should track the location of individual soldiers for comprehensive medical studies. So why wasn't that done until three years into the second war in Iraq? Tribune national security reporter Matthew D. LaPlante reports at blogs.sltrib.com/military.
Review Open air burn pits
A 2006 memo written by Hill Air Force Base environmental engineer from drew attention to the possible hazards of a burn pit at the largest U.S. facility in Iraq, Joint Air Base Balad. He warned that service members were potentially being exposed to toxins as weapons, chemicals and plastics were being burned.