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Open Pit Burn Exposure Echoes Asbestos Disease

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Anaheim, CAMilitary personnel and contractors deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have not only dealt with suicide bombers and enemy attacks; their own country has put their lives at risk by hiring defense contractors KBR and Halliburton (and some lesser contractors) to dispose of military waste by open pit burning, which exposed them to toxic fumes and possibly illnesses similar to asbestos diseases.

Last month the American Chemical Society (a nonprofit organization chartered by the US Congress) reported on its study that began in 2008 and is ongoing. "Our preliminary results show that the fine particulate matter concentrations frequently exceed military exposure guidelines and those individual constituents, such as lead, exceed US ambient air quality standards designed to protect human health," said Jennifer Bell, a member of the research team.

The study alarmingly echoes reports of asbestos disease and mesothelioma that spanned decades: these open pit burns have created air that contains "particulate matter"—dust or fine particles—that lodge deep inside the lungs. By US National Ambient Air Quality Standards, these particle levels have been found at almost 10 times higher than the "desirable" levels.

Bell said this fine particulate matter has been linked with a variety of health problems, including an increased incidence of cardiovascular disease. Even soldiers in excellent health are not immune. Furthermore, like the asbestos disease mesothelioma, many troops who breathed air polluted by open pit burns may not experience health issues until much later. And because the effects of open pit burn exposure are relatively new, no one really knows the long-term health effects that military personnel may suffer from breathing toxic air.

But a number of troops have already experienced adverse events and have filed open burn pit lawsuits. Fifty-year-old Jessey B, a National Guard master sergeant from Albuquerque, New Mexico, has recently requested further investigation into exposures associated with his diagnosis of mesothelioma and constrictive brochiolitis. Jessey was deployed twice to Balad Air Base in Iraq, home to the largest and most notorious of the Iraq burn pits.

In March 2010, a lawsuit was filed against KBR, Kellogg Brown & Root LLC and Halliburton on behalf of two military veterans who claim their respiratory diseases, neurological skin disorders and more were caused by hazardous emissions from burn pits. The lawsuit is calling for the defense contractors to:

  • Award Plaintiffs monetary damages to compensate each Plaintiff for his or her physical injuries, emotional distress, fear of future disease, and need for continued medical treatment and monitoring;

  • Award Plaintiffs punitive damages in an amount sufficient to strip Halliburton/KBR of all of the revenue and profits earned from their pattern of constant, wanton and outrageous misconduct and callous disregard and utter indifference to the welfare of Americans serving and working in Iraq and Afghanistan, who depend on Halliburton/KBR to properly and safely dispose of various forms of waste, and who depend on Halliburton/KBR not to create hazardous conditions and not to release toxins into the air…

  • Almost one year later (February 2011) two US Senators —Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) and Bill Nelson(D-FL)—announced that the military "agreed to identify ways to promote greater access and use of protective equipment to service members who work near toxic 'burn pits' in the war zone." This announcement came two months after a veteran died from cancer linked to exposure to fumes from an open burn pit.

    (Regarding the March 2010 lawsuit above: The defendants' motion to dismiss was denied in September 2010. In the US District Court for the District of Maryland, Honorable Roger W. Titus ruled that the lawsuits filed by American military personnel and civilians against defense contractors KBR and Halliburton may proceed and that "carefully limited discovery" may now take place.)


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