Today, U.S. Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) requested an immediate update from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen on the Department of Defense’s (DoD) promise to expand the use of safety masks by troops serving at or near toxic burn pits overseas. Today’s letter follows-up on a self-imposed DoD sixty day timetable to promote the use of masks at toxic burn pits, which has come and gone since the Senators’ initial request in February. The letter also comes on the heels of a new study, conducted by Dr. Anthony Szema of the State University of New York at Stony Brook School of Medicine, that revealed veterans who had deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan had eight times greater incidences of respiratory illness than veterans who had deployed elsewhere.
Across Iraq and Afghanistan, waste – including human waste, plastic, batteries and scrap metals – has been incinerated in toxic burn pits, often using jet fuel. The study by Szema, conducted under the auspices of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northport, New York, shows that veterans who had deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan had eight times greater incidences of respiratory illness than veterans who had deployed elsewhere.
In January, following the December death of 41-year-old Army Sgt. William McKenna from cancer linked to fumes from a burn pit Schumer and Nelson wrote to Gates urging him to promptly issue guidance that requires protective respirator masks to be made available to all troops working in or near toxic burn pits in overseas warzones. McKenna, a veteran originally from West Babylon, New York, lived in Spring Hill, Florida.
In a Feb. 7th reply, Admiral Mullen wrote the military is “in the process of gathering additional information and within the next 60 days will identify ways to promote greater access and use of protective equipment.” Mullen also wrote that “local commanders are also ensuring burn pits are operated in a safe, secure area and inspected regularly.”
However, the sixty day timetable has come and gone, with many troops still at a health risk from exposure to toxic fumes from burn pits. As of last week, the Defense Department said, there were still 78 burn pits in Afghanistan. According to CNN, a report last fall from the Government Accountability Office found that the pits, used on some bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, are burning items "such as plastic, that generate harmful emissions" despite regulations forbidding it.
To date, hundreds of veterans have complained of illnesses they believe were caused by exposure to the pits, forcing the Pentagon to restrict their use and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to investigate. About 300 victims or their families have sought representation in a class-action lawsuit against KBR, the military contractor that operated some of the burn pits at bases in Iraq. The company is fighting the suit, filed in federal court in Maryland, claiming that it operated some pits at the military’s direction, while most were operated by the Army.
In response to complaints from the veterans and pressure from lawmakers, the (VA) has provided money for the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study of the possible consequences of burn-pit exposure. This year, the VA issued new guidelines for its staff to be on the lookout for veterans with illnesses that may have been caused by burn-pit exposure.
A copy of the letter appears below.
May 18, 2011
The Honorable Robert Gates
Secretary of Defense
Washington, DC 20301-1000
Admiral Mike Mullen
Washington, DC 20301-1000
Dear Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen,
We are in receipt Admiral Mullen’s letter of February 7 which responded to our inquiry regarding burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. We appreciate the importance which the Department of Defense is giving to this issue, and we write now to inquire regarding the progress which you anticipated within sixty days of that letter. Our concern on this issue is particularly heightened, having just learned the results of a study conducted by Dr. Anthony Szema of the State University of New York at Stony Brook School of Medicine, which was conducted under the auspices of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northport, N.Y.
We welcome the steps the Department has taken to reduce the number of burn pits in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and we recognize the difficulties of operating in a contingency environment. Nevertheless, the results of Dr. Szema’s study lend strong credence to concerns about our troops’ safety when operating in and around these burn pits. According to the study, veterans who had deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan had eight times greater incidences of respiratory illness than veterans who had deployed elsewhere. We understand that there may be other contributing factors to this high rate of illness, such as the hazardous dust which is found in that part of the world. Nevertheless, that fact only intensifies the need to limit troops’ exposure to the potential hazards of burn pits.
The February 7 letter indicated that within sixty days the Department would identify ways to promote greater access and use of protective equipment to mitigate burn pit concerns. Please let us know as soon as possible the result of that effort, and any additional actions that are being taken in light of Dr. Szema’s study. If there are any specific resources or authorities which would be helpful for Congress to provide, please do not hesitate to let us know.
Senator Charles E. Schumer
Senator Bill Nelson
Click here to read more about burn pit claims for benefits and lawsuits. Call Jon L. Gelman at 973.696.7900 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org