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In August, Congress passed the Honoring our PACT Act, intended to significantly improve healthcare access and funding for veterans who were exposed to toxic substances during military service. A team at West Virginia University is studying how exposure to toxic substances from military burn pits affect veterans’ health.
Inside the West Virginia University Inhalation Facility lab, senior research engineer Travis Goldsmith prepares a modified pellet stove for an experiment.
“We kind of ripped out the guts of it and kind of made it our own,” he said. “We added a lot of different sensors, thermocouples live in different temperatures, we got a jet fuel line hose we can drip that on one we have the auger we control the speed of the auger we control the speed of the fan.”
Goldsmith and his colleagues are studying the potential health impacts of burn pits, an incineration method used by the U.S. military to manage waste on foreign bases. Since the WVU team can’t go out back and build their own burn pit, the finite control the pellet stove offers them is key to managing the compounding variables of a real-world burn pit. Temperature of burn, distance from the source, and the materials burned, are just a few examples.
As the stove turns on, pellets meant to mimic burn pit components are automatically fed into the stove.
“We’re going to start with rubber, plastics, Styrofoam, cardboard, and just regular wood chips and sawdust. Basically like I said, try to mimic what happens at the actual burn pit,” Goldsmith said.
According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, open-air combustion of trash and other waste in burn pits was a common practice in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other areas of the Southwest Asia theater of military operations. The Department of Defense has now closed out most burn pits and is planning to close the remainder.
Timothy Nurkiewicz is the chair of West Virginia University’s Department of Physiology and Pharmacology as well as the director of the Inhalation Facility.
“The line I like to use is that military bases are not like camping. In camping, what you pack in, you pack out and leave nothing behind. At a military base, what they pack in, when they’re done, everything is destroyed. And that’s achieved by burning it in a burn pit,“ Nurkiewicz said. “It ranges from simple things like paper, and wood, to more complex things like styrofoam and rubber fluids like hydraulic fluid, paint, coatings, batteries, computers, human waste, as well as surgical waste, there’s essentially no limit to it.”
When veterans started returning from the 1991 Gulf War, many began presenting with chronic, unexplained symptoms like fatigue, muscle pain, and cognitive issues. Theories as to the illness’s source ranged from vaccines to exposure to depleted uranium.
“They are over the years presenting now with what is referred to as Chronic Multisymptom Illness,” Nurkiewicz said.
Instances of Chronic Multisymptom Illness, or CMI, have only increased with the U.S. military’s continued presence in the Middle East, but often it takes months or years for symptoms to present in veterans. The disease is not well understood, but a leading theory now is that the broad health impacts are caused by exposure to burn pit exhausts.
“That is first and foremost in our research, is to identify what is that lag between exposure and ultimate effect that a person is aware that there is something wrong,” Nurkiewicz said.
Burn pit emissions often wafted across a base or outpost, and therefore the potential toxicants from the burn impact every soldier and service member on the base, regardless of whether they worked directly on the pit or not.
“We haven’t even started considering things like skin exposures, or ocular exposures, or secondhand exposures, the emissions that land on solid surfaces, and then people will touch that surface and later on their hands will go into their mouth, their nose, their eyes, their ears,” Nurkiewicz said. “The lungs are our focus right now, because it is the most reasonable place to start. But there should be studies looking at these alternate routes of exposure.”
Research scientist Anand Ranpara is analyzing the soot and smoke created by the lab’s pellet stove to get a better understanding of its composition and impact on the lungs. He says they have found compounds like naphthalene and benzene at nanoscopic scales, meaning the tiny particles can easily bypass the lungs’ defense mechanisms and enter the bloodstream. They have also identified toxic gasses such as nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides in their experiments.
“We are not talking about only one or two impacts, it’s not one plus one is two, it could be more than two. So you have particles, and you have gasses, both are gonna cause the health impact,” Ranpara said. “And it could be exponential. And that’s exactly what our working hypothesis is building up to. That’s why we are seeing some long term health impacts, not short term immediate effects of health among veterans.”
The team’s work is ongoing, and Nurkiewicz is asking for the help of veterans to better understand the issue.
“We are not veterans. Our study inception in design is based on what we have learned from members of the West Virginia National Guard, and from the literature, but that by no means is conclusive of all of the burn pits, and all of the things that some of our soldiers may have seen,” Nurkiewicz said. “So in that capacity, we would like to ask anyone who may want to contribute to the project, please reach out to us with your information. However small you may think it is, it’s something that we don’t know. And we need your input.”
Timothy Nurkiewicz can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org