This is Part 1 of a multi-part 12 on 12 Digital Original: A Burning Controversy
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Could toxic exposure on military bases overseas lead to long-term health effects in service members when they get home?
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, burn pits have been a way to get rid of waste at military sites in several countries overseas. But due to the high level of toxic materials produced by this type of open-air incinerator, The U.S. government partly banned burn pits in 2010.
However, one member of the Rhode Island National Guard, who asked Eyewitness News to shield his identity, said burn pits are still a reality on the military bases where he served.
“The US might have outlawed the burn pits as of 2011, but they are still going on by the Iraqis.”
In Oct. 2017, he left Rhode Island for training in Texas, eventually heading to Kuwait, Iraq, and then Syria.
“In Iraq, there were I’d say five to 10 visible stacks of smoke. In Syria, I had only seen the one, but we were a small base.”
He said there was burning every day, and nothing was spared. “Batteries to bodies,” he explained.
He said the burn pits were characterized by thick smog and a smell of burning rubber. Now, back home in Rhode Island, he said he has unexplained rashes all over his body.
“I kind of had a feeling there would be further repercussions from it. Ya know, having such a prolonged exposure. For my civilian job, I need to have a test done every single year. When I left, my levels were great. When I came back, I barely passed the test.”
This soldier said people in his squadron are now dealing with lung issues and difficulty breathing.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, toxins in burn pit smoke may affect the skin, eyes, respiratory and cardiovascular systems, gastrointestinal tract and internal organs.
But, the V.A. says at this time, “most of the irritation is temporary and resolves once the exposure is gone. This includes eye irritation and burning, coughing and throat irritation, breathing difficulties, and skin itching and rashes.”
The member of the Rhode Island National Guard we spoke with said he isn’t angry about this toxic exposure, but he does want to see changes made to protect future soldiers from being exposed.
“If I have to blame it on somebody, I would definitely blame the Iraqi government. But the U.S. government isn’t doing anything to alleviate our symptoms from the exposure. They are putting us in harm’s way by putting us at these places where other people are able to burn stuff.”