“We Always Called It ‘Black Snow'”

Katie Drummond reports that military-operated “burn pits” in Iraq and Afghanistan have put servicemembers’ health at risk:

[W]hen Le Roy [Torres] arrived at [Joint Base] Balad in the summer of 2007, the first thing he noticed was the smell. A noxious, overwhelming stench reminiscent of burning rubber. “I was like, ‘Wow, that is something really bad, really really bad,’” he recalls. Soon, he also noticed the smoke: plumes of it curling into the air at all hours of the day, sometimes lingering over the base as dark, foreboding clouds. That smoke, Le Roy soon learned, was coming from the same place as the stench that had first grabbed him: Balad’s open-air burn pit.

The pit, a shallow excavation measuring a gargantuan 10 acres, was used to incinerate every single piece of refuse generated by Balad’s thousands of residents. That meant seemingly innocuous items, like food scraps or paper. But it also meant plastic, styrofoam, electronics, metal cans, rubber tires, ammunition, explosives, human feces, animal carcasses, lithium batteries, asbestos insulation, and human body parts — all of it doused in jet fuel and lit on fire. The pit wasn’t unique to Balad: open-air burn pits, operated either by servicemembers or contractors, were used to dispose of trash at bases all across Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s no secret that open-air burning poses health hazards. …

That’s because of both the size of the particulate matter emitted from the pits and its composition. Smoke from any combustion process fills the air with what are known as “fine particles” or PM2.5. Because they’re so small — measuring 2.5 microns in diameter or less — these particles burrow more deeply into the lungs than larger airborne pollutants, and from there can leach into the bloodstream and circulate through the body. The military’s burn pits emitted particulate matter laced with heavy metals and toxins — like sulfur dioxide, arsenic, dioxins, and hydrochloric acid — that are linked to serious health ailments. Among them are chronic respiratory and cardiovascular problems, allergies, neurological conditions, several kinds of cancer, and weakened immune systems.

Update from a reader:

On the subject of the dangers of burn pits in Iraq, you and your readers might be interested in the story of Joshua Casteel. As a military interrogator in Iraq he apparently conducted over 100 interrogations at Abu Ghraib in the aftermath of the allegations of abuses there in 2004, only to decide that his role was incompatible with his Christian faith. His application for conscientious objector status was approved by the Army and he went on to work with Iraq Veterans Against the War and speak out against what he saw as his abuses in numerous public forums. As a graduate student in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago (I am a student in the English Department there; I didn’t know him, but I know people who did), he was diagnosed with lung cancer and died relatively soon thereafter, in August 2012. His friends and family strongly believe that his quarters in Iraq had something to do with it; he slept near an active burn pit for almost six months while serving there. Here and here are few links for background. Some of his writings also appeared in Harper’s, but I don’t have the link.

(Hat tip: Eric Levenson)