Mesopotamia or Midlothian – Burning is Bad

by jim on June 17, 2012

Here's a great story from Wired that reports the results of the first tests done in and around the places where the military's "burn pits" were located during the most recent Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Not familiar with "burn pits?" If you grew up in rural Texas you are because it's exactly the way your grandfather got rid of his family's trash – by putting it in a big pile and then putting a match to it. Besides turning a ravine into an impromptu landfill, burn pits are the most popular way of disposing of your garbage when Waste Management just can't get to you.

In the military, burn pits were the disposal option of choice for everything: human waste, paints and paint removers, asbestos insulation, plastic and styrofoam containers, old computers and monitors – any waste you can imagine being generated at a front line military base.

Not surprisingly, troops that spent time around these open-air waste incinerators have been complaining about chronic bronchitis, neurological disorders, and rare cancers – just like people who live dowwnind of waste burning at cement kilns and incinerators. Military spokespersons have reassured these whiners that there was "no specific evidence" of the pits doing any human health damage. To which all of you who've been doing this for a while will respond: "How many times did anyone look for such damage?" The answer is zero – until now. Pulmonologist Dr. Anthony Szema of the Stony Brook School of Medicine, just released the results of an experiment that links the burn pit dust to immune system damage. Dr. Szema exposed 15 mice to the dust from the remains of a burn pit in Iraq. When collected on-site, the pit still stunk with the incinerated remains of animal carcasses, lithium batteries, printers and glues. This lovely cocktail of toxins was then inhaled by the mice and researchers tracked their respiratory system and spleen for signs of strain. And they got them.

Lung inflammation occurred within two hours of exposure, and T-cells dropped by a third. T-Cells are a critical component of the human immune health originating in the bone marrow but then going to the Thymus to finish their development. AIDS and other immune destroying diseases kill T-Cells. After two weeks of being regularly exposed to the burn pit dust, the mice had lost 70% of the T-cells they started with. "I can't even imagine what this date shows when you think about someone coming back from Iraq," Szema says. "these guys weren't inhaling the air once. They were working in it, sleeping in it, exercising in it. For days on end." Despite being limited to mice, Szema is confident that the results are transferable to humans. The symptoms of his mice line up with those being reported by veterans to a database at  BurnPits360, a website dedicated to tracking the health of exposed servicemen and women. It's also one more step in understanding why different people react to pollution differently. With your immune system offline everyone is vulnerable to different inherent health weaknesses that are exacerbated. Dr. Szema isn't surprised at the results of his groundbreaking tests. "Based on the patients I've seen, this is a no-brainer. If anyone tries to say, ' Oh dust is just dust,' I can tell them that's simply not true."

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