Many veterans who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan are getting sick, many of them with illnesses similar to those that have plagued Vietnam Veterans for decades. Is it possible that Iraq/Afghanistan vets have been exposed to the same chemical in Agent Orange responsible for so much sickness? Our first thought would be “of course not! Why would the military need to use an herbicide/defoliant in the desert?” However, if you’ve read my primer on Agent Orange, you will have learned that it was not the herbicide itself responsible for so much illness (although herbicides certainly CAN cause health problems.) The chemical thought to be responsible was an accidental contaminant, a dioxin known as TCDD.
So how could a contaminant created during the manufacture of herbicides end up in Iraq and Afghanistan? TCDD and other dioxins are actually produced in small quantities when burning just about anything. When certain metals or chemicals (many of which are found in electronic equipment) are present during the burning, even more dioxins are created. Industrial incinerators that burn tons and tons of municipal waste have certain precautions in place to filter out dioxins and other chemicals into the environment. However, when trash is burned in pits, or even in a barrel in your backyard, much, much more dioxins are released. In fact, one study found that a single family of four burning their trash in their backyard produces MORE dioxins than an industrial incinerator that incinerates waste from tens of thousands of families.
It is important to note that, unlike with agent orange, TCDD is one of many, many different dioxins present in smoke from burning waste, with most very closely related in structure, and likely similar in health effects.
Levels of Exposure
So exactly how much dioxin was present on bases in the Middle East that burned their waste in burn pits? In spring, 2007, measurements of dioxins were taken on Joint Balad Base (JBB) in Iraq. According to a study performed by the Institute of Medicine, a concentration of six to thirteen TIMES the levels found in Beijing, China were measured near the guard post on base. Air pollution is so bad in Beijing that it has been termed an “airpocalypse,” and some question if the city is even inhabitable. Children’s playgrounds exist inside inflatable domes, and citizens often walk the streets using industrial strength masks. Contrast this to a private standing watch for many hours of the day with no mask, sleeping in a tent tens of yards away, dumping waste directly into the burning pits, while coughing from the thick smoke.
The World Health Organization calls dioxins “highly toxic,” and of the “dirty dozen” (the 12 persistent organic pollutants that the WHO, EPA and other groups have decided pose the biuggest health risks to man,) THREE out of the twelve are present in burn pit smoke. Dioxins and dioxin-like compounds have many negative health effects. The VA presumes several diseases to be the result of TCDD exposure, and if you’re read any of our blog posts about agent orange, you know that the VA’s list doesn’t nearly cover all possible effects. While dioxins cause many problems, from cancer to hormonal problems to cardiovascular problems, what makes burn pits even worse is that dioxins aren’t the only deadly toxin present in the area. One of the problems with dioxins is that they occupy certain proteins (cytochrome p450) from doing their job, which is to help metabolize drugs and dangerous chemicals in the body. Dioxins can act as a distraction, while other dangerous chemicals such benzene or vinyl chloride wreak havoc on the body. Dioxins are not even the deadliest chemical component of burn pit smoke!
While it took the VA many years to address the health issues associated with agent orange, we can only hope that our current knowledge regarding the dangers of burn pit smoke will help the VA move swiftly to ensure that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans receive the healthcare and disability benefits they so badly need and deserve.
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