During deployment to a war zone, military personnel are exposed to a variety of environmental hazards, many of which have been linked to long-term adverse health outcomes, such as cancer and respiratory disease. Many veterans returning from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have health problems they believe are related to their exposure to the smoke from the burning of waste in open-air “burn pits” on military bases. Open-air waste burning has long been used by the military when other disposal options have not been available. Particular controversy surrounds the burn pit used to dispose of solid waste at Joint Base Balad (JBB) in Iraq, which burned up to 200 tons of waste per day in 2007.
The Department of Veterans Affairs asked the IOM to form a committee to determine the long-term health effects from exposure to these burn pits. The committee used the burn pit at JBB as an example. The IOM collected data on environmental releases and concentrations of combustion products at JBB, information on possible human exposure at the base and elsewhere, and the potential for long-term health effects of that exposure. The Department of Defense provided raw air-sampling data, which were used to determine which chemicals were present at JBB and which were present in ambient air. Based on this data, the committee found that levels of most pollutants at the base were not higher than levels measured at other polluted sites worldwide.
However, insufficient evidence prevented the IOM committee from developing firm conclusions about what long-term health effects might be seen in service members exposed to burn pits. Along with more efficient data-gathering methods, the report recommends that a study be conducted that would evaluate the health status of service members from their time of deployment to JBB over many years to determine their incidence of chronic diseases, including cancers, that tend to not show up for decades. Given the many hazards to which military personnel are exposed in the field, service in Iraq and Afghanistan in general, rather than exposure to burn pits only, might be associated with long-term adverse health effects.