The Stream

US military burn pits: The new Agent Orange?

Army veterans, civilians link illnesses to fumes from waste disposal sites.

Munitions, metals, plastics, chemicals, and even corpses have been burned by the US military in massive craters known as burn pits. But these pits are now being compared by many to Agent Orange –  a chemical the US used in Vietnam that ruined the lives of millions.

Ten years ago, former US marine Brian Alvarado patrolled and supervised burn pits in Iraq. After battling a string of illnesses, his vocal chords have now been removed, he breathes out of a hole in his neck, and he consumes food from a hole in the side of his stomach.

Alvarado is not alone. The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) listed 110,989 veterans and service members in its latest burn pits registry. Critics say the VA has been slow to investigate the problem, and many veterans are unable to receive medical benefits.

But it’s not just US veterans who are suffering. A recent study examined the effects of burn pits and other war-created pollution on children from the city of Basra in Iraq, and found a higher incidence of birth defects that coincided with higher levels of lead and other metals in baby teeth.

Former US President Barack Obama outlawed the war-zone burn pits, but the military continues to operate nearly 200 burn pits around the United States. A ProPublica investigation has found that the burn sites are getting rid of extremely toxic materials with little or no oversight and regulation, and often violate what few regulations there are without consequence.

At the Colfax plant in Lousiana, millions of pounds of munitions are burned just a few hundred yards from a small, mostly black community. High levels of toxic vapours like acrolein and benzene have been found in the air, which according to the World Health Organization has “no safe level of exposure.” It is the only plant in the country allowed to burn explosives and munitions waste with no emissions controls and has been doing so for decades.

On this episode of The Stream, we’ll look into the problem and talk to those whose lives have been affected by burn pits.

On this episode of The Stream, we speak to:

Rosie Lopez-Torres @Burnpit360
Executive director, Burn Pits 360

Mozhgan Savabieasfahani @Mozhgan_Savabi
Environmental toxicologist

Abrahm Lustgarten @AbrahmL
Senior environmental reporter, ProPublica

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