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Military under fire to regulate overseas burn pits

Gary Richard slept in this U.S. military camp

Gary Richard slept in this U.S. military camp in Iraq. Photo Credit: Handout

While Sgt. Gary Richard served at Camp Anaconda, Iraq, garbage fires smoldered day and night in a huge pit 100 yards from the tent he slept in.

Richard believes the toxin-laden smoke is responsible for the nagging cough and asthma he has endured since then.

"There were acres of garbage and toxic stuff burning 24 hours a day," said Richard, 56, an Army reservist living in Hauppauge. "At night, the sky would glow in that direction because of the fires."

The experience of Richard and other soldiers helped inspire a bill offered last week by Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) that would force the military to more tightly regulate the burn pits - outdoor fires that are the principal trash disposal method for U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The legislation would prohibit the military from burning trash in a manner that would expose military personnel to dangerous toxins.

It would also require the military to create a medical registry of troops who have been exposed to chemical hazards released by burning refuse in the past.

"It is critical to have an official registry documenting the tens of thousands of troops exposed to these toxic burn pits in order to remove obstacles to accessing the VA benefits which many of them will need as a result of exposure," Bishop said in a release.

Tons of plastics, medical waste, spent equipment and other refuse are tossed into the smoldering fires every day.

Dr. Anthony Szema, chief of the allergy section at the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center, told a congressional committee that the pits may needlessly expose soldiers to mercury, arsenic, dioxins and other toxic waste released by the unregulated combustion.

Szema said a study of 6,000 patients showed that one in 10 developed adult-onset asthma after serving in Iraq - twice the rate as for soldiers stationed in the United States.

"This is an alarming trend," Szema said.

He said burn pits should be replaced by high-temperature incinerators, which produce more complete combustion and leave fewer pollutants.

The organization Disabled American Veterans, which has been pressing Congress for restrictions on the burn pits, says it has been contacted by more than 430 service members who attribute various illnesses to chemicals released from the pits.

Bishop's legislation would strengthen regulations imposed by Congress in last year's defense authorization bill.

That measure prohibited the Defense Department from disposing of medical waste and hazardous materials in burn pits in Iraq or Afghanistan unless the secretary of defense determined the military had no alternative.

Last month, the Defense Department announced it would study possible long-term effects of breathing smoke from the pits.

But in announcing the new study, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said an earlier one done at Balad Air Base in Iraq, adjacent to Camp Anaconda, showed no ill effects among personnel who were exposed to fumes.

"To date, we don't have any information on any longer-term health risks that may be associated with burn pit smoke inhalation," Whitman said.

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