Burn Pits Used in Afghanistan and Iraq are Hazardous to Public Health

by Project Censored

On US military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan burn pits are being used as a main resource for disposing of garbage, military waste, and human waste. Journalist J. Malcolm Garcia writes that, “The pits incinerate discarded human body parts, plastics, hazardous medical material, lithium batteries, tires, hydraulic fluids, and vehicles. Jet fuel keeps pits burning twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.” The smoke that comes from these pits moves over the military base and local areas and affects the health of both the soldiers and locals.

The US Department of Defense claims that these burn pits were “necessary” at the beginning of the war in 2003 for public health reasons. Yet, these burn pits are still being used.  J. Malcolm Garcia notes that “in August 2010 the United States Central Command estimated that there were 251 open burn pits in Afghanistan and 22 in Iraq”. In these attempts to prevent public health problems by the use of burn pits the DOD overlooks the fact that these toxic emissions, which have been continuously released into the air since 2003, also pose a threat to public health.

According to the DOD in July 2011, “complaints about respiratory problems from burn pit smoke began about four years ago.” The DOD performed a risk assessment but concluded that there are “no measurable, anticipated risks”. On the contrary, there has been substantial evidence showing that exposure to burning garbage can have severe health risks, “burning plastic, for instance, releases carcinogenic substances that may increase the risk of heart disease and respiratory ailments, cause rashes and damage the nervous system…computers, television sets and mobile phones release cadmium, lead, and mercury, which can also damage the nervous system and kidneys.”

The burning of other garbage, oil and gas can release Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH) and other chemicals that are carcinogens known to harm humans. Although the DOD believe that these complaints are few and minimal, the Veterans Administration who care for these soldiers “have seen significant increase in the respiratory problems in soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan…[and] other physical problems among war veterans includ[ing] shortness of breath, headaches, and coughing up blood.” In recent articles by J. Malcolm Garcia the war veterans he interviewed have life threatening health conditions such as blood disorders, cancer, lesions, constrictive bronchitis, damaged esophagus and damaged lungs that are related to the continuous exposure to these pits.

Student Researcher: Kimberly Soeiro, Sonoma State University
Faculty Evaluator: Elaine Wellin Ph.D., Sonoma State University


Garamone, Jim. “DOD Continues to Study Dust, Burn Pit Health Effects” July 20 2011.< http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=64748>

Garcia, Malcolm J. “Breathing In” Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2011 <http://www.vqronline.org/articles/2011/spring/garcia-breathing>

Garcia, Malcolm J. “Smoke Signals” Oxford American, August 24 2011. <http://www.oxfordamerican.org/articles/2011/aug/24/smoke-signals>

Garcia, Malcolm J. “Smoke Screen” Guernica Magazine, August 15 2011. <http://www.guernicamag.com/features/2972/burn_pits_afghanistan_8_15_2011>

WECF. “Dangerous Health Effects of Home Burning of Plastics and Waste” WECF, 2005.