US Military's Open Burn Pits in Afghanistan May Be Making People Sick

Photo by Ryan Lackey via Flickr CC - "This is the never-ending burn pit at Balad. It's a rather crude waste disposal method (burn off anything that burns, then sell the rest in bulk to Iraqis for metal recycling), but it works well enough -- except when the wind blows the smoke through the rest of the base. I lived about 300 meters away from this burn pit in q3/q4 2004, which was...sometimes unpleasant."

J. Malcolm Garcia has written a piece on Guernica on the strange smell of burning plastic that comes from the American military base just outside of Bagram Village in Afghanistan. The military burns garbage -- an average of 10 pounds of solid waste per person inlcuding "computers, motorbikes, TVs, shoes, and even human feces" -- to dispose of it, but the method releases toxins that could be causing illness. Garcia writes, "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."

We know of the issues of improper recycling of electronics -- e-waste dumps have taught, and are teaching us, about the consequences to human health, water supplies, air quality and even soil quality of burning toxic materials such as electronics. Open burn pits with everything tossed in, well, it is clearly an unhealthy idea, and that is acknowledged by the US EPA.

"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," writes Garcia.

Garcia reports that there has been an uptake in respiratory diseases among US soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and we can guess that local laborers and residents are also being affected.

While some say that this was the cheapest, easiest solution to the garbage, it certainly isn't the smartest. One soldier says that it's probably just too hard to get people to recycle because putting trash convoys on the road is too risky. However, we've seen the level of ingenuity coming out of Afghanistan when it comes to repurposing materials into something useful.

Garcia visited the area to find out more about the open pits -- the reasons why, and what soldiers and officers think about the "solution" for garbage -- and has a fantastic article written about it. I highly recommend reading it all the way through.

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Tags: Pollution


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