DOD Continues to Study Dust, Burn Pit Health Effects

WASHINGTON, July 20, 2011 — The Defense Depart­ment con­tin­ues to be con­cerned that air­borne dust and smoke may pose health risks to deployed ser­vice mem­bers, the department’s chief of health assur­ance said here yes­ter­day.

How­ev­er, R. Craig Postle­waite told the Pen­ta­gon Chan­nel, there is no evi­dence to sug­gest that ser­vice mem­bers deployed to U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand are being dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affect­ed by envi­ron­men­tal fac­tors.

DOD believes it is plau­si­ble that some indi­vid­u­als could be adverse­ly affect­ed by either the smoke or the sand and dust [in the region],” Postle­waite said.

Of the mil­lions of ser­vice mem­bers who have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, only about 100 have been affect­ed by these con­di­tions, Postle­waite said. The depart­ment vows to give the best care to any ser­vice mem­bers ill for any cause, he added, includ­ing envi­ron­men­tal expo­sures.

Health spe­cial­ists will exam­ine the ser­vice mem­bers to find out why they are affect­ed and oth­ers are not, Postle­waite said.

What’s dif­fer­ent about these peo­ple?” he asked. “[Did they have] more expo­sure? Pre-exist­ing con­di­tions? Genet­ic sus­cep­ti­bil­i­ties?”

Offi­cials also will ask if their con­di­tions could be the result of com­bined expo­sures – dust, smoke and tobac­co, for exam­ple.

Postlewaite’s orga­ni­za­tion over­sees test­ing to ensure ser­vice mem­bers’ health. Deploy­ment oper­a­tional health sur­veil­lance char­ac­ter­izes haz­ards present in the air, water or soil in deployed set­tings.

We have col­lect­ed almost 20,000 air, water and soil sam­ples through­out [the Cen­tral Com­mand area],” Postle­waite said. “They’ve been ana­lyzed for any haz­ardous mate­ri­als. We take that we cat­a­logue it and archive it, and it’s avail­able for us to go back to if we need to. That said, the num­ber of haz­ards we’ve iden­ti­fied in these 20,000 sam­ples is rel­a­tive­ly small.”

The group ana­lyzes water for organ­ic chem­i­cals, met­als and any­thing else that may present health haz­ards, he said. “We do the same thing with the soil – par­tic­u­lar­ly look­ing for any spills that may have occurred, any con­t­a­m­i­na­tion from pre­vi­ous oper­a­tions,” said he added. “For the air, we ana­lyze it for a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent things.”

The Army stud­ied air sam­ples from around Iraq and Afghanistan. Its Advanced Par­tic­u­late Mat­ter Study was pub­lished in 2010.

There were lit­er­al­ly thou­sands of air sam­ples col­lect­ed for just that study from 15 dif­fer­ent loca­tions through­out the the­ater,” Postle­waite said. “They were ana­lyzed for dozens of dif­fer­ent poten­tial air haz­ards. When all the analy­sis was done, there were more than 6 mil­lion data points that came out of the study.”

The study indi­cat­ed that the sand and dust present in the the­ater was “not demon­stra­bly dif­fer­ent” form the sand and dust in desert regions of the Unit­ed States, he said. “The pro­por­tions of var­i­ous types of cal­ci­um and var­i­ous com­pounds were a bit dif­fer­ent, but there was noth­ing that stood out as a health haz­ard that affects our peo­ple,” Postle­waite said.

The air in cities was affect­ed by smog, and the sam­ples tak­en at bases were able to mea­sure pol­lu­tion from burn pits, Postle­waite said. “For those instal­la­tions that still hap­pened to have burn pits at the time, those air sam­ples tend­ed to indi­cate the organ­ic mate­r­i­al that was burned from the fires,” he said.

The burn pits were a neces­si­ty when forces first moved into Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, because accu­mu­lat­ed garbage caus­es pub­lic health prob­lems. Nei­ther Iraq nor Afghanistan had an infra­struc­ture — no garbage trucks, no land­fills. So com­man­ders had to burn the waste, Postle­waite said.

At the small­est camps, it could have been a sin­gle trench in the ground or a bar­rel that burned once dai­ly,” he said. As the size of an instal­la­tion increased, the size of the burn pit increased also. At the largest instal­la­tions, acres were set aside for waste dis­pos­al.

What went into the pits were the same things that go into dumps any­where in the Unit­ed States – garbage and refuse from offices and liv­ing quar­ters.

Ear­ly on in the oper­a­tion, there was also a lot of con­struc­tion going on, so there may have been a fair amount of wood [and] some plas­tic mate­ri­als. We’ve had reports of cer­tain things that we wouldn’t con­done burn­ing today that prob­a­bly were burned,” Postle­waite said. “Since that time, very strin­gent reg­u­la­tions have been put into place that now severe­ly lim­it what can be burned in the burn pits and what can’t.”

All those things that could poten­tial­ly gen­er­ate a haz­ardous emis­sion of some sort are now elim­i­nat­ed from the waste stream, he said.

We’re rea­son­ably cer­tain that for those burn pits that con­tin­ue to exist based on the mate­ri­als being burned now, we don’t have near­ly the con­cerns with the health impacts that we had to begin with,” Postle­waite said.

In Iraq, the burn pits were replaced by incin­er­a­tors. Also, Iraq is devel­op­ing the infra­struc­ture to han­dle waste. A plan is in place to close all of the burn pits in Afghanistan by the end of the year, Postle­waite said.

Com­plaints about res­pi­ra­to­ry prob­lems from burn pit smoke began about four years ago, he said. The depart­ment treat­ed these alle­ga­tions seri­ous­ly and began inves­ti­gat­ing as soon as pos­si­ble, he said.

The reports com­ing out of the vet pop­u­la­tion cov­ered a wide water­front – skin, res­pi­ra­to­ry, can­cer autoim­mune con­di­tions,” he said. “You would expect with a com­mon expo­sure to see a com­mon type of ill­ness, and we weren’t see­ing that.”

The depart­ment did a com­plete risk assess­ment fol­low­ing Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency pro­to­cols at the burn pit at Bal­ad Air Base, Iraq. “We looked at that in detail and we could come up with no mea­sure­able, antic­i­pat­ed risk based on the expo­sure to the air sam­pling that we accom­plished for the burn pit smoke sam­ples,” Postle­waite said.

Again, he added, there was noth­ing out of the ordi­nary.

Still, DOD will con­tin­ue to col­lect med­ical sur­veil­lance data and will con­tin­ue lab and clin­i­cal research on inhal­ing smoke and dust, Postle­waite said. The depart­ment will also con­tin­ue to reach out to med­ical experts in and out of gov­ern­ment for advice, he added.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)