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Death of US Veteran Linked to Burn Pits

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Washington, DCIt didn't take long for Defense Secretary Robert Gates to respond to requests by two Congressional leaders for greater oversight of US Military burn pits, and the availability of protective gear for personnel working within close proximity. Charles Schumer and Bill Nelson wrote to Gates January 5.

A little more than a month later, the two Senators had a commitment that the military would identify ways to make protective equipment such as respirators available. According to the February 11 issue of Newsday, a communiqué from US Navy Admiral Mike Mullen—the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—indicated that military officials are "gathering additional information and within the next 60 days will identify ways to promote greater access and use of protective equipment.

"Local commanders are also ensuring burn pits are operated in a safe, secure area and inspected regularly."

Burns pits are regularly used by the military to get rid of unwanted waste. Jet fuel is used to facilitate the incineration of everything from garbage to banned plastics without cautionary oversight to protect personnel from toxic fumes.

The recent death of Bill McKenna, at a Florida hospice from a rare form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma three days after Christmas last year, has brought the issue to a head. McKenna did two tours of duty in Iraq. His doctor and the Department of Veterans Affairs have linked his death to exposure to burn pits.

And there are lots of them. A defense environment alert noted Government Accountability Office (GAO) figures revealing 251 active burn pits in Afghanistan and 22 in Iraq as of August of last year. A Department of Defense (DOD) spokeswoman says that as of the end of December, DOD had shut down all of its burn pits in Iraq. In addition, it has installed 41 incinerators in Afghanistan, and plans another 141 incinerators in that country this year, to move away from the use of burn pits, according to the spokeswoman.

Since the beginning of the wars, the US military has relied heavily on open burn pits, and only in 2009 did Central Command (CENTCOM)—the regional combatant command responsible for overseeing US military operations in both countries—issue comprehensive instructions on managing the pits and minimizing their dangers.

"The troops who are in Afghanistan and Iraq have enough to worry about with the enemy shooting at them," Nelson said in a statement. "They shouldn't have to worry about getting sick or killed by the fumes from our own burn pits."

Senator Schumer agreed. "While the dangers of these pits and alternatives are being investigated and considered, the very least we can do is provide respirators to the brave men and women required to work in close proximity to them," Schumer said in a statement.


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