U.S. Military Toxins: The Gift That Keeps on Killing

A tragic history of pollution continues in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Terry J. Allen

Iraqis wave as the last U.S. convoy heads to the Kuwaiti border to leave Iraq on Dec. 18, 2011. (Lucas Jackson/AFP/Getty Images)

Hey, Iraq, don’t say we nev­er gave you any­thing. In addi­tion to hun­dreds of thou­sands dead and untold injured, the Unit­ed States is leav­ing behind enough tox­ic waste sites to kill your rats. 

Once again, sick and dying vets are trying to trace their cancers and respiratory problems to the toxins of war.

Open-air burn pits have oper­at­ed wide­ly at mil­i­tary sites in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Affairs notes on its web­site. On hun­dreds of camps and bases across the two coun­tries, the U.S. mil­i­tary and its con­trac­tors incin­er­at­ed tox­ic waste, includ­ing unex­plod­ed ord­nance, plas­tics and Sty­ro­foam, asbestos, formalde­hyde, arsenic, pes­ti­cides and neu­ro­tox­ins, med­ical waste (even ampu­tat­ed limbs), heavy met­als and what the mil­i­tary refers to as radioac­tive com­modi­ties.” The burns have released muta­gens and car­cino­gens, includ­ing ura­ni­um and oth­er iso­topes, volatile organ­ic com­pounds, hexa­chloroben­zene, and, that old favorite, diox­in (aka Agent Orange).

The mil­i­tary pooh-poohs the prob­lem, despite a 2009 Pen­ta­gon doc­u­ment not­ing an esti­mat­ed 11 mil­lion pounds [5,000 tonnes] of haz­ardous waste” pro­duced by Amer­i­can troops, the Times of Lon­don report­ed. In any case, it says, the waste isn’t all that tox­ic, and there is no hard evi­dence troops were harmed. Of course, one rea­son for that lack of evi­dence, reports the Insti­tute of Med­i­cine (which found 53 tox­ins in the air above the Bal­ad air base alone), is that the Pen­ta­gon won’t or can’t doc­u­ment what it burned and buried, or where it did so.

The lit­tle media atten­tion that has been paid to this mas­sive pol­lu­tion has dim­ly illu­mi­nat­ed its poten­tial impact on U.S. troops. Left in mephitic dark­ness are the con­trac­tors, often impov­er­ished South Asians, who did the dirty work at the bases, as well as Iraqi civil­ians who live and farm near­by. The Times of Lon­don report­ed that open acid can­is­ters sit with­in easy reach of chil­dren, and dis­card­ed bat­ter­ies lie close to irri­gat­ed farm­land,” caus­ing peo­ple to sick­en and rats to die next to soiled containers.”

The tox­ic air echoes with the Viet­nam War’s Agent Orange fias­co. Vic­tims of that war’s diox­in suf­fered for years before the Unit­ed States took lim­it­ed respon­si­bil­i­ty – but only for its troops, and not for the coun­tries it poisoned. 

The military’s his­to­ry of pol­lu­tion is long and large­ly unmit­i­gat­ed by leg­is­la­tion, treaties or law­suits. It stretch­es around the world, from bases in the Philip­pines to Oki­nawa, Kuwait to Cana­da, and to numer­ous U.S. sites as well. 

Once upon a time – before 911 turned con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries into a self-right­eous boom indus­try – Area 51 was an amus­ing Mec­ca for a ded­i­cat­ed band of tin­foil-hat nut­ters who fan­ta­sized about alien anal probes and insist­ed that the gov­ern­ment was hid­ing space aliens on a secret Air Force Base in the Neva­da desert.

But a real and more nefar­i­ous plot was the military’s exploita­tion of lax reg­u­la­tion and work­er con­fi­den­tial­i­ty agree­ments to use Area 51 as a secret dumping/​burning ground for the tox­ic waste shipped in from oth­er bases.

As deaths mount­ed at Area 51, work­ers – and their wid­ows – sued, pro­duc­ing evi­dence that the mil­i­tary had reg­u­lar­ly filled foot­ball-field-sized trench­es with 55-gal­lon drums of haz­ardous waste, doused them with jet fuel and set them ablaze. The law­suit foundered on the shoals of nation­al secu­ri­ty” secre­cy. The mil­i­tary got away with murder.

Fast for­ward to U.S. mil­i­tary bases around the world that are sim­i­lar­ly immune from effec­tive reg­u­la­tion and report­ing. GAO inves­ti­ga­tors charge that the mil­i­tary in Iraq burned pro­hib­it­ed sub­stances and ignored guid­ance” to mon­i­tor emis­sions and to ana­lyze its waste stream.

Again, sick and dying vets, this time from Iraq and Afghanistan, are try­ing to trace their can­cers and res­pi­ra­to­ry prob­lems to the tox­ins of war. Again, the mil­i­tary refus­es to release com­plete data, and claims the data show no harm­ful effects. Again, the assump­tion of cul­pa­bil­i­ty, and the clean-up efforts will come too lit­tle, too late. 

A July arti­cle in the New Eng­land Jour­nal of Med­i­cine stud­ied 80 sol­diers dis­abled with con­stric­tive bron­chi­oli­tis, a very rare find­ing” in oth­er­wise healthy, young non-smok­ers. Almost all the cas­es were traced to inhala­tion­al expo­sures dur­ing ser­vice in Iraq and Afghanistan.” The jour­nal lament­ed : This group caus­es par­tic­u­lar con­cern, since their poten­tial tox­ic expo­sures are shared by most per­son­nel who were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.”

And, oh, yes, by those left to endure the pre­dictable con­se­quences of expe­di­ent poi­son­ing. You’re wel­come, Iraq. 

Ter­ry J. Allen is a vet­er­an inves­tiga­tive reporter/​editor who has cov­ered local and inter­na­tion­al pol­i­tics and health and sci­ence issues. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Boston Globe, Times Argus, Harper’s, the Nation​.com, Salon​.com, and New Sci­en­tist . She has been an edi­tor at Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al, In These Times , and Cor​p​watch​.com. She is also a pho­tog­ra­ph­er. Her por­traits of peo­ple sit­ting in some of the 1900 cars lined up out­side a New­port, Vt., food drop can be seen on www​.flickr​.com/​p​h​o​t​o​s​/​t​e​r​r​y​a​l​l​e​n​/​a​lbums. Ter­ry can be con­tact­ed at tallen@​igc.​org or through www​.ter​ry​jallen​.com.
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