Military mum on dirty air in Iraq

Health concerns An environmental report on the burn pit at Balad Air Base now is classified for 'national security'
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Military officials insist there's no problem.

But veterans' advocates are calling for full transparency about the health risks faced by service members who have been stationed at the largest U.S. air base in Iraq, where one inspector called an open-air burn pit "the worst environmental site I have ever personally visited."

But for the moment, that quote -- found in a memo from a military environmental engineer from Utah -- is all that is publicly known from a 2006 Environmental Health Site Assessment on the situation at Balad Air Base. That's because the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventative Medicine is refusing to make the document public, saying that the information it contains "would damage our national security."

How could a health assessment damage national security? For veteran Paul Rieckhoff, the situation smells as bad as Iraq's foul air.

"It's troubling," said Rieckhoff, an Iraq combat veteran and director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which lobbies on behalf of vets who have served in the nation's ongoing conflicts. "Just saying 'everything is fine' is not going to fly."

The Army insists that it is doing more. Michael Kilpatrick, a spokesman for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, said the military has done extensive sampling of the air in Balad and other bases where burn pits are used to get rid of garbage -- including weapons, chemicals, plastics, and even amputated limbs.

"The bottom line on all of this sampling is that we have not identified anything, where there are troops, where it would have been hazardous to their health," Kilpatrick said.

Kilpatrick noted that the military is working to install incinerators, which burn waste more cleanly, at Balad and elsewhere in Iraq. However, the process has been slow. The Pentagon purchased 41 incinerators in 2006, but fewer than half are operational. Eighteen are still under construction and six have not yet received funding to be installed.

That runs contrary, however, to a memo penned by Hill Air Force Base officer Darrin Curtis, who served in Balad in 2006 and 2007 and called the burn pit -- and it's distinctive black smoke plume -- an "acute health hazard." In his memo, Curtis cited the 2006 site assessment, including the quote from the unidentified inspector.

According to the memo, that inspector claimed he had never seen anything worse than the situation in Balad, in a decade of reviewing toxic waste issues.

Now that report has been classified. And Col. Thomas Logan, who commands the center, refuses to say why. Logan declined to be interviewed by The Salt Lake Tribune. A spokeswoman only repeated that information in the report could damage national security if it were made public.

That's left some who have served at Balad feeling as though they might not be getting the full story. Air Force sergeant Julianne Hancock, who was stationed in Balad in 2005 and 2006, said she just wants to make sure she's getting all the facts about her exposure. According to the Curtis memo, that might include dozens of toxins, including arsenic, formaldehyde and hydrogen cyanide.

"I think that people who make the sacrifice of serving their nation at war deserve to know everything about what we're breathing -- everything about what's happening out there," she said.

Troy Whittaker, president of the Utah Society for Respiratory Care, said the toxins listed in the Curtis memo might have a "broad range of effects," including respiratory hyperactivity, cancer, liver disease and pulmonary fibrosis. "At the very least, it would make sense to have a screening chest X-ray, a walking oximetry test," which measures the amount of oxygen in the blood, "and possibly pulmonary function tests if the person has acute respiratory symptoms," Whittaker said.

For now, however, the military is advising none of those things. Kilpatrick, the military health spokesman, said a comprehensive report defending the military's stance on the burn pit issue is forthcoming.

But Kilpatrick, himself a trained physician, said he would advise a patient he was treating to at least "make a mental note that you were there" and "if you do develop any kind of medical problem, make sure whoever is providing you care at that time knows this part of your history."

Rieckhoff said that's going to be tough for service members who haven't even been given access to all the records detailing what they were exposed to.

"They need to get ahead of the curve here," he said. "The best way to do that is to provide transparency."

But Rieckhoff won't be holding his breath. "The military, quite honestly, doesn't have a great record on these issues," he said.

Just this week, a federal report concluded that about a quarter of the 700,000 veterans who served during the first Iraq conflict in 1990 and 1991 suffer symptoms of so-called Gulf War illness, including memory and concentration problems, chronic headaches, widespread pain, gastrointestinal problems and other chronic abnormalities.

"Scientific evidence leaves no question that Gulf War illness is a real condition with real causes and serious consequences for affected veterans," the report stated.

Military officials originally had insisted that there was no problem.

Balad's burn pit

Hill Air Force Base officer Darrin Curtis, who served in Balad in 2006 and 2007, wrote a memo calling its burn pit an "acute health hazard." He also cited a 2006 report from the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventative Medicine, which is now classified.

In that report, the Curtis memo said, an unidentified inspector said that in a decade of reviewing some of the nastiest toxic waste issues in the world, he had never seen anything worse than the situation in Balad.

What's next » A comprehensive report defending the military's stance on the Balad burn pit is forthcoming, a spokesman says.