Since returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, an untold number ofsoldiers have come down with puzzling health problems. Chronicbronchitis. Neurological defects. Even cancer.
Many of them arepointing the finger at a single culprit: The open-air “burnpits” that incinerated trash — from human waste tocomputer parts — on military bases overseas. Pentagon officials have consistently reassured personnel that therewas no “specific evidence” connecting the two. But now,only days after Danger Room uncovered a memo suggesting that Army officials knew how dangerous the pits were,an animal study is offering up new scientific evidence that linksburn pits to depleted immune systems. “The dust doesn’t only appear to cause lunginflammation,” says Dr. Anthony Szema, an assistant professorat Stony Brook School of Medicine who specializes in pulmonologyand allergies, and the researcher who led this latest study.”It also destroys the body’s own T-cells.” Thosecells are at the core of the body’s immune system,”like a bulletproof vest against illnesses,” Szematells Danger Room.
When they’re depleted, an individual ismuch more prone to myriad conditions. For scientists, trying to establish a definitive connection betweenthose diffuse health problems and the pits has been exceedinglydifficult to do. Most notably because the Department of Defense, asa report issued by the Institutes of Medicine noted last year, didn’t collect adequate evidence —like what the pits burned and which soldiers were exposed —for researchers to draw any meaningful conclusions about the impactof the open-air incinerators. Szema’s study is only on 15mice, so it’s by no means definitive. Banner Display Stand
But it is an importantfirst step. Regardless, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Pentagonofficials were aware of the risk posed by the pits. Another memo (.pdf), written by Lt. Col. Darrin Curtis in 2006 and obtainedby Danger Room, warned of “an acute health hazard” topersonnel stationed at Iraq’s Balad air base. Pop UP Display Banners Manufacturer
“It isamazing,” he noted, “that the burn pit has been able tooperate … without significant engineering controls being putin place.” But as recently as yesterday, when asked about the leaked Army memoobtained by Danger Room (which cited a risk of “long-termadverse health conditions” from the pits), Pentagonspokesperson George Little told reporters that ” we do not have specific evidence that ties these kinds of disposalfacilities to health issues .” Perhaps not. But researchers just got way, way closer. A team, ledby Dr. Szema at Stony Brook University, this week revealed toDanger Room the results of their ongoing investigations that aretrying to directly link health problems to the air emitted by burnpits. Custom Flags Banners Manufacturer
And the results should cause those who served near the pits— which burned trash at most major bases in Iraq andAfghanistan during at least some period over the last decade— to be concerned. Dr. Szema’s team used dust samples taken from around the burnpits at Camp Victory, Iraq (provided to them by the Army Corps ofEngineers). That environs, according to Army Officer Daniel Tijerina (who blames the pits for his ownchronic health problems), was rife with the fumes of incinerated”animal carcasses, asbestos insulation … lithiumbatteries, paints and paint strippers … copiers, printers,monitors, glues [and] styrofoam,” among other equipment,waste and chemical products.
The dust from Camp Victory was inserted into the airways of mice,and researchers tracked their subjects’ responses using twometrics: A pathologist examined tissue samples from the lungs forsigns of inflammation, and the team used flow cytometry to count the T-cells in each subject’s spleen. Theresearchers found that the mice exhibited lung inflammation andsuppressed immune cell counts within a period of two hours afterexposure. More specifically, their T-cell counts dropped byone-third. Two weeks later, their T-cell counts had plummetedagain, leaving the mice with 30 percent of the T-cells they’dhad before the dust exposure. All of the mice also exhibited inflammation in their airways, oftenalongside interstitial inflammation — swelling in the tissuenetwork that extends throughout the lungs and facilitates theexchange of gas and air between the lungs and blood.
“I can’t even imagine what this data shows when youthink about someone coming back from Iraq,” Szema says.”These guys weren’t inhaling this air once. They wereworking in it, sleeping in it, exercising in it. For days and dayson end.” Although Dr. Szema’s research relied on animal models, hesays he’s confident the results “are highly applicablewhen you consider a human case.” They certainly seem to matchthe symptoms popping up among thousands of soldiers, many of whomhave logged their ailments on a database at BurnPits360 , a website dedicated to the topic.
And his findings regardingimmune-system suppression might help explain why soldiers exposedto the same fumes are now afflicted with vastly differentillnesses. This study is also the first to examine current exposure and theonset of symptoms. Earlier research has been less comprehensive.The IOM study , for example, simply studied a host of air samples taken fromIraq. Other, epidemiological, investigations have evaluated the current health metrics of soldiers who’d served near the burn pits.
Nonehave actually tested the air samples on living subjects and thentracked the results. Certainly, the research adds more heft to that earlier work. Buteven Dr. Szema, who is also conducting an analysis that uses theBurnPits360 database to compare soldier symptoms with their likelyexposures, acknowledges that his results shouldn’t exactly besurprising. “Based on the patients I’ve seen, this is ano-brainer,” he says.
“If anyone tries to say,‘Oh, dust is just dust,’ I can tell them that’ssimply not true.”.