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Many American troops were injured in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars not by bombs or bullets, but by something seemingly innocuous: getting rid of trash. The American military dumped garbage — human waste, dead animals, paper, plastic, electronics, batteries, asbestos, whatever — into huge pits and set it all on fire with jet fuel. The particles the burn pits spewed are causing lung problems for some troops, according to an investigative report by The Verge's Katie Drummond. This despite long-standing military policy and environmental recommendations to avoid using burn pits.

Movie-goers might remember the poop-burning scene from Jarhead, but these trash piles don't just consist of human waste, the Verge reports. Drummond explains, "The military’s burn pits emitted particulate matter laced with heavy metals and toxins — like sulfur dioxide, arsenic, dioxins, and hydrochloric acid — that are linked to serious health ailments." They sent black soot high into the air, as the GIF at right, taken from an Iraq video posted on YouTube, demonstrates. (Caption: "My first recorded video of the burn pit in Iraq. The wind was somewhat calm so the smoke went up for once and not blowing in all directions like normal." Comment: "I remember that burn pit....if the wind was blowing towards the housing area it didn't matter if you were inside your pod you could still smell that smoke. I remember waking up to that smell quite a bit.")

Needless to say, inhaling these airborne particles is bad for the lungs, as The Verge discovered in detail when speaking with several former soldiers. "I remember waking up with soot on me; you'd come out and barely see the sun because it was so dark from the smoke," said 28-year-old Air Force veteran Dan Meyer, who lived near an Afghanistan burn pit and now needs an oxygen tank to breathe. "We always called it 'black snow.'" That snow affected Le Roy Torres in Iraq, as well, when he was stationed next to Balad base's 10-acre wide burn pit. "It started with a cough. I was coughing up this gunk stuff, like black phlegm that kept coming and coming," he said. "The medical officer told me it was 'Iraqi crud' and it'd go away in a few days. I thought, 'I’ve been here a month, how much longer?'"

The cough never went away for Le Roy, who lost his job back home because he can't perform physically challenging tasks. And according to Dr. Robert Miller, a pulmonologist at Vanderbilt University, Le Roy was just one of many soldiers suffering from these symptoms. "We had one soldier after another, talented capable athletes, who couldn’t pass their fitness tests anymore," he said.

Even as late as this July, the military still maintained four burn pits in Afghanistan, while closed trash incinerators sit idly by gathering dust. Read the full story at The Verge.

(Top image of Balad burn pit: KOtheUltimateWeapon via Youtube.)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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