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Troops in Mideast Have More Respiratory Ills, Data Show

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Determining whether the symptoms are due to exposure while on duty has been difficult, because most soldiers never had a lung-function test prior to deployment for comparison, although they would have had to pass certain physical tests. In addition, some veterans have post-traumatic stress disorder, which can impair breathing.

“I don’t think we have a sense for how big the problem is at all,” said Cecile Rose, a pulmonary and occupational medicine expert at National Jewish Hospital in Denver who is spearheading a working group on veteran respiratory issues and helped organize the panel on the topic at the conference.

Since the 2009 Senate hearing, the armed forces have taken steps to shut down or limit the use of burn pits, and have built incinerators that burn more cleanly. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has asked the Institute of Medicine, an agency that advises the government on policy, to assess the health risks of burn pits. The report is expected later this year.

The 2010 National Defense Authorization Act prohibited pits from burning hazardous and medical waste unless the Secretary of Defense deems there isn’t a viable alternative. As of Friday, the Defense Department said, there were 78 burn pits in Afghanistan and none in Iraq. In August 2010, there were 251 in Afghanistan and 22 in Iraq, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The Senate hearing in 2009 focused on the burn pit at the Balad Air Base in Iraq, one of the largest U.S. bases in that country. The Balad pit, now closed, came into operation in 2003 and at its peak burned hundreds of tons of waste a day, according to a May 2008 report issued jointly by the Army and Air Force. Dr. Szema and other experts testified that the pits could cause respiratory and other health issues.

Cpl. Ryan Wilson, 31 years old, who was stationed in Balad from August 2007 to May 2008, said in an interview that the plume of smoke was so black and thick he sometimes couldn’t see the main road to the camp he was guarding from a sniper tower near the pit.

Cpl. Wilson said he would get headaches as soon as he stepped into the tower and couldn’t get rid of them until his week-long rotation was over. The smell of the pit seeped into his clothing, and he would get undressed outside his room and stuff his clothes into a bag so the smell wouldn’t permeate the room, he said.

Though he has been stateside since 2008, each morning Cpl. Wilson still coughs so hard he almost gags and can’t run as fast as he could before going to Iraq, he said. He said he has been diagnosed with chronic respiratory pulmonary disorder and is now on disability.

There is also litigation pending. Some 250 alleged victims have joined a lawsuit that claims KBR, which served as a government contractor, failed to provide safe waste-disposal services, according to Susan Burke, lead counsel for the plaintiffs at the law firm Burke PLLC in Washington, D.C.

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