Today, as the House considered the National Defense Authorization bill for FY 2012, the chamber approved a measure offered by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) requiring the Secretary of Defense to submit reports to Congress on the health impacts on our troops when waste is disposed of in open-air burn pits. While burn pits have been an expedient method of disposing waste at operating bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, the types of materials that have been burned produce hazardous toxins, such as carcinogens that are produced when plastics are burned.
"The short and long term affects of exposure to toxins released from open-air burn pits have yet to be determined, but could be injuring the respiratory systems of our troops," Rep. Schiff said. "This amendment will help to ensure the safety and health of our brave men and women in uniform who risk their lives each day as they serve and protect the nation."
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, published in October 2010, concluded that the military relied heavily on open air burn pits in both Iraq and Afghanistan. There are still 78 open air burn pits operating at bases in close proximity to U.S. Military personnel. Furthermore, the operators of the burn pits have not always followed relevant guidance to protect service members from exposure to harmful emissions, according to GAO.
GAO also concluded that U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq did not sample or monitor burn pit emissions as required by U.S. Central Command, stating that "the health impacts of burn pit exposure on individuals are not well understood, partly because the military does not collect required data on emissions or exposures from burn pits."
Under Rep. Schiff's amendment, each health assessment report submitted to the Senate and House Committees on Armed Services will be required to include a description of short and long term health risks; methodology used to determine the health risks; and the assessment of the operational and health risks when making the determination to continue the use of open-air burn pits for waste disposal.