This is Part 2 of a multi-part 12 on 12 Digital Original: A Burning Controversy


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — It was December 2014. 

Chelsey Poisson was in the midst of a conversation with her boyfriend, who had served in Iraq in 2007 and 2008.

What he told her in those moments forever shaped the course of her life, and work. 

“He was there for 15 months, and he told me all his friends passed away. And I said ‘what do you mean?’ He said, ‘yeah they died.’ And I said, ‘Yeah that’s war. Not to be insensitive.’ And he said ‘no, they died when they got home’,” Poisson said. 

One of those friends was Sgt. Major Robert Bowman. He died in 2013 from Cholangiocarcinoma, or bile duct cancer. 

According to the American Cancer Society, the disease Sergeant Bowman died from is most common in southeast Asia. Here in the United States, the ACS said the average age of people diagnosed with bile duct cancer is 70. Sgt. Bowman was 44 years old when he died.

“The only other logical cause was that it was from toxic exposure,” Poisson said. 

Under the umbrella of the Hunter Seven Foundation, a federally-recognized, 501(c)(3) non-profit foundation, Poisson now researches the link between toxic exposure and serious health conditions in military members. 

RELATED: How Hunter 7 Foundation Got Its Name »

“These people are coming home extremely sick and it’s devastating,” Poisson said. 

In 2011, Congress directed the Department of Veterans Affairs set up a burn pit registry, which allows eligible members of the Armed Forces to document their exposure and report any health concerns. According to the VA, more than 178,000 vets and service members enrolled in the registry between April 2014 and June 2019. 

Meantime, the Department of Defense said research on the effects of burn pits is still ongoing. 

In an April report to Congress, the DOD said it “continues to research alternatives and test incinerator solutions” and that “the health and safety of our men and women in uniform is our utmost priority.”

The department also said there are several factors that influence the continued use of open burn pits.:

  1. The short-term nature of contingency locations, which includes both the mission focus and rotation of deployed personnel. 
  2. The infrastructure gaps and limited contract disposal capabilities in contested environments such as Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, or Yemen.
  3. The resource investments required to fund, install, operate and maintain long-term solutions such as incinerators or engineered landfills. 

In Rhode Island, the Hunter Seven Foundation continues researching the effect of burn pits. Last summer, the foundation created a survey that more than 110 soldiers had completed. 

“It’s a pinpoint in the number of Iraqi veterans, but the statistics compared to a larger demographic coincidences with each other pretty well,” Poisson said. 

The survey consists of 66 questions, focused on a person’s demographics, plus their health pre-deployment, during their time overseas, and when they came home. 

Poisson said before they left, “our data showed 20 percent [of service members] had some kind of symptoms.” She said it was things like joint pain, muscle pain, and acid reflux. 

During deployment, Poisson said symptoms spiked from 20 percent to 89 percent. 

“Cough, severe headaches, trouble breathing, severe nose bleeds, and phlegm.”

When they got home, Hunter Seven’s research indicates 95 percent of soldiers were experiencing some sort of health issues – memory loss, chronic headaches, skin conditions, and white spots in the mouth and on the hands. 

“But the acute symptoms, like the discolored phlegm and pain with breathing, nausea, vomiting, showed a drastic decrease once they left the combat zone,” Poisson said. 

Poisson said she believes her research suggests there was an irritant that sparked a reaction while these members of the military were overseas. She suggests it was the exposure to burn pits. 

“We sat there and we were like ‘woah, yeah, this makes sense.’ This helps provide evidence that these [burn pits] are causing symptoms,” Poisson said. 

Hunter Seven’s research also shows 100 percent of soldiers who completed the survey passed a physical fitness test prior to deployment, but only 58 percent did post-deployment. 

If you are a service member and have health concerns related to burn pits register in the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs Burn Pit Registry