Like the Vietnam vets who battled Agent Orange, troops in Afghanistan are facing a danger as deadly as Taliban insurgents – toxic fumes from open-air burn pits.
Although U.S. military officials ordered that bases stop using the pits to burn solid waste, they are still going up in smoke, according to Fox News.
“Given the fact that [the Department of Defense] has been aware for many years of the significant health risks associated with open-air burn pits, it is indefensible that U.S. military personnel, who are already at risk of serious injury and death when fighting the enemy, were put at further risk from the potentially harmful emissions from the use of open-air burn pits,” John Sopko, inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said in a report, Fox reported.
Afghan war veterans have filed a class-action lawsuit blaming exposure to the pits’ fumes for causing health problems.
That suit, lodged against private contractors KBR and its former parent company Halliburton Co., is headed back to U.S. District Court in Maryland after the U.S. Supreme Court declined in January to take up the defendants’ appeal for a dismissal.
KBR, which had a government contract to provide waste management on overseas bases, says it was not operating in Afghanistan during the period covered in the SIGAR investigation, and the company is not mentioned in the report. But the report’s strong words about the health hazards could bolster the arguments made by servicemembers who say their proximity to the burn pits resulted in protracted medical issues — including asthma, acute respiratory illness, immunity disorders and even cancer.
“[The] IG report confirms what we have alleged in the lawsuit,” said Susan Burke, the veterans’ lead attorney.
Sopko’s report estimated that the pits burned an average of 410 tons of solid waste per day during the war’s 13-year existence, but neither the government nor KBR has acknowledged any connection between their use and long-term health hazards.
“At this time, research does not show evidence of long-term health problems,” the Veterans Administration says on its website.
Nevertheless, Burke claimed the report backed up lawsuit claims that the potentially harmful effects of burn-pit emissions were known long before attempts to shut them down. The class-action suit alleges KBR did not take proper precautions to mitigate the effects of the burn-pit emissions and in some cases, exacerbated them. KBR denies those charges, saying it consistently followed military guidelines.
“The health hazards, sadly, are all too clear to me,” Burke of her clients’ failing health.
The Department of Defense disagreed.
“Although this report clearly identifies areas for improvement, it does not fully account for the difficult and complex operational environment that led commanders to make some very difficult decisions,” Maj. Gen. John Murray, deputy commander of support for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told Fox News in a statement.
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