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Alarms sound over trash fires in war zones of Afghanistan, Iraq

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 6, 2010; A02

Hundreds of military service members and contractor employees have fallen ill with cancer or severe breathing problems after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they say they were poisoned by thick, black smoke produced by the burning of tons of trash generated on U.S. bases.

In a lawsuit in federal court in Maryland, 241 people from 42 states are suing Houston-based contractor Kellogg Brown & Root, which has operated more than two dozen so-called burn pits in the two countries. The burn pits were used to dispose of plastic water bottles, Styrofoam food containers, mangled bits of metal, paint, solvent, medical waste, even dead animals. The garbage was tossed in, doused with fuel and set on fire.

The military personnel and civilian workers say they inhaled a toxic haze from the pits that caused severe illnesses. Six with leukemia have died, and five are being treated for the disease, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. At night, more than a dozen rely on machines to help them breathe or to monitor their breathing; others use inhalers.

"You'd cough up black stuff, and you couldn't seem to catch your breath. And your eyes were burning," said Anthony Roles, 33, a father and Air Force retiree from Little Rock, who was told that he had a blood disorder shortly after returning from Iraq in 2004. "I can still smell it to this very day."

Roles said there was a nickname for the symptoms: "Iraqi crud."

Whether the plaintiffs, who include current and former service members and KBR employees, can prove in court that open-air trash burning made them sick -- or that KBR bears any responsibility -- hinges on complex legal and medical issues. There is no guarantee that the courts will allow their cases to be brought to trial. But the lawsuit caught the attention of Congress and led to government limits on burn pits.

In March, the military banned most open-air burning of plastics, tires, aerosol cans and other materials. In April, the Department of Veterans Affairs identified burn pits as an environmental hazard. Last month, the American Lung Association, citing health risks to soldiers, urged the military to immediately find other means of trash disposal.

"It's tragic when soldiers come back and didn't get a scratch on them from the enemy but have some possibly life-altering problems because of burn pits," said Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.), one of several lawmakers who pushed to limit the use of the pits.

KBR officials said the military decides when to use open-air burning, where to set up the pits and what to toss in. They pointed to a 2008 military study of the burn pit at Balad Air Base. That study, widely used to gauge health risks of burn pits in general, concluded that there were no long-term effects.

"We have asked the Army whether they still believed it was okay for us to provide services to burn pits, and also be at burn pits, and that's because we wanted to make sure our people were adequately protected," said Jill Pettibone, a KBR senior vice president. "We were assured it was."

Until 2007, KBR was an engineering and construction subsidiary of Halliburton, an oil field services company, which is a defendant in the lawsuit.

R. Craig Postlewaite, acting director of the Defense Department's Force Health Protection and Readiness Programs, said in court papers that the military acknowledges that it is "plausible and even likely that a relatively small number of people. . . may be affected by more serious, longer term health effects." A Defense Department spokeswoman said that the government is studying the exposures and that "our number one priority is the health of service members."

Michele Pearce of McLean, an Air Force lieutenant colonel and mother of two, said she tried to ignore her irritated nostrils and runny nose during her four-month stint in 2006 at Camp Victory in Iraq. She kept working despite an upset stomach and a rash that spread across her face. As an avid runner, she exercised often, inhaling the fumes at the base.

When she came home, Pearce, 40, was told she had two rare cancers. She said her doctors cannot say whether the smoke caused the tumor in the lining of her stomach or the one in her lung. But she has joined the lawsuit to find answers.

"I want to know the truth about what I was exposed to," Pearce said. "I want to know the truth of the risks people took with my life and my health. I hope my experience can somehow benefit the process and provide answers, not only for myself but for others."

Disposal problem

Where and how to get rid of garbage is difficult problem in wartime. Military officials say open burning was often the best -- if not the only -- option for getting rid of huge amounts of trash. No trash-removal system existed; incinerators are expensive and take time to install; and the military lacked the time and space to build landfills on bases. The burn pits often are close to where soldiers live and work because it's too dangerous to put them far from base.

"Although disposing of certain substances in burn pits may not be ideal from a health standpoint, on an installation in a hostile environment in wartime, there may not be any other viable options," Postlewaite said in court papers.

The military could not provide data on how many burn pits have been used at bases in Iraq and Afghan. KBR has operated a total of 28 since 2002 and currently operates 10, a spokeswoman said. The company said it did not operate the Balad burn pit, one of the largest in Iraq, and responsibility for the Balad pit's operation is a point of contention in the lawsuit. At many locations in Iraq, trash disposal was handled by the military or contractors other than KBR.

The military says it is working to replace as many trash pits as possible with incinerators and to make the others safer to operate.

Defense Department spokeswoman Cynthia O. Smith said most burn pits in Iraq have been shut down. As of June, she said, burn pits were in use at 166 locations where U.S. forces were based in Afghanistan.

Anthony Szema, a professor at SUNY Stony Brook School of Medicine, told the Senate Democratic Policy Committee in November that the slow, low-heat burning of plastic bottles produces dioxin and hydrochloric acid, chemicals associated with immune dysfunction, IQ deficits and reproductive abnormalities. He said foam cups and treated wood emit carcinogens when burned. And burning particle board or plywood releases formaldehyde, a chemical associated with nose and throat cancer, liver and kidney disease, and airway inflammation.

Under orders

During a recent hearing in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, where burn pit lawsuits from across the country have been combined, KBR attorney Robert A. Matthews urged a judge to dismiss the case. He said the contractor followed the orders of the military and shouldn't bear any legal burden.

"The United States made the decision, balancing the risks that it perceived on the battlefield," Matthews said in court. "The United States continues to this day to say it was a right decision. . . . And if they're wrong, the finger of blame will point at the United States military."

Susan Burke and other attorneys for the plaintiffs say KBR failed to follow the terms of its contract, which required it to take precautions to protect the health of those on base.

Judge Roger W. Titus is considering whether to allow the case to proceed.

Kevin Robbins, 47, of Ludington, Mich., burned trash at Camp Delta in Al Kut, Iraq, for three months in 2005. The father of seven had decided to close his drywall business and join the Army after his brother, Todd J. Robbins, was killed in Iraq in 2003. After a recruiter told him that he was too old, he got a job with KBR to help out any way he could.

"We just dug holes in the ground, and when the trash came in, we put it in the holes and we burned it," Robbins said. "Everything. Plastic, tires, Humvee doors, vehicles, medical waste, whatever they brought in. Ammunition, rockets."

Christopher Sweet said his wife, Jessica, an Air Force sergeant and mother of three, did not talk much about the burn pits when she worked near one at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan during a four-month deployment in 2007. But as the fitness training leader for her squadron, she did daily workouts and five-mile runs.

After she came home, the fatigue and fevers set in. Sweet was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.

"She started recalling what she experienced with the burn pits," said Christopher Sweet, who lives in Brandywine with their children. "She was convinced the smoke she was inhaling while she was in Afghanistan had to have contributed to the leukemia. I didn't care how it happened. I just wanted her to get better."

Jessica Sweet died in February 2009. She was 30.

Her husband joined the lawsuit. "If there are other people out there who are sick because of the exposure to the burn pits," he said, "she would want to help."

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