Image: U.S. soldiers burning garbage in Iraq
Marko Drobnjakovic  /  AP File
U.S. Army soldiers from the 23rd Infantry Regiment burn garbage at a combat outpost in the village of Shakarat, Diyala province, Iraq, in December 2007.
updated 8/6/2010 5:22:20 AM ET 2010-08-06T09:22:20

Some 241 military personnel and contractors who became ill after serving in Afghanistan and Iraq are suing a Houston-based firm, claiming they were poisoned by smoke from trash fires, the Washington Post reported Friday.

The claimants, who are from 42 states, are suffering from a range of conditions including cancer and severe breathing problems, which they blame on the thick, black smoke. The symptoms were reportedly nicknamed "Iraqi crud" by troops.

They are taking legal action against Kellogg Brown & Root, which operated more than two dozen burn-pits in the two countries, the Post reported. It used to be a subsidiary of Halliburton, which is a also a defendant in the case.

These were used to get rid of garbage including plastic water bottles, Styrofoam food containers, mangled bits of metal, paint, solvent, medical waste and dead animals by dousing it in fuel and setting fire to it, the newspaper said.

The paper said six people had died from blood-cancer leukemia and five others had the disease, while more than 12 had to use machines to help them breathe or monitor their breathing.

"You'd cough up black stuff, and you couldn't seem to catch your breath. And your eyes were burning," Anthony Roles, 33, a father and Air Force retiree from Little Rock, told the Post. "I can still smell it to this very day."

He was told that he had a blood disorder shortly after returning from Iraq in 2004, the paper said. Roles added there was a nickname for the symptoms: "Iraqi crud."

'I want to know the truth'
Air Force lieutenant colonel Michele Pearce of McLean, a 40-year-old mother of two, spent four months at Camp Victory in Iraq in 2006, where she developed an upset stomach, a rash across her face, irritated nostrils and a runny nose, the Post said. She exercised often, inhaling the fumes at the base.

She was told she had two rare cancers, in the lining of her stomach and in her lung, when she returned home. "I want to know the truth about what I was exposed to," Pearce told the Post. "I want to know the truth of the risks people took with my life and my health. I hope my experience can somehow benefit the process and provide answers, not only for myself but for others."

Christopher Sweet said his wife, Jessica, an Air Force sergeant and mother of three, worked near a burn-pit at Bagram air base in Afghanistan for four months in 2007. Sweet was later diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and died in February 2009 at the age of 30.

"She was convinced the smoke she was inhaling while she was in Afghanistan had to have contributed to the leukemia," Sweet, who has joined the lawsuit, told the Post. "I didn't care how it happened. I just wanted her to get better."

The lawsuit led to controls on the use of burn pits, but proving the medical conditions are linked to the smoke will depend on a range of complicated legal and medical issues, the Post said.

In April, the Department of Veterans Affairs identified burn pits as an environmental hazard and last month, the American Lung Association, warned of health risks and said the military should find another way of disposing of the trash.

Not 'a scratch' from enemy
"It's tragic when soldiers come back and didn't get a scratch on them from the enemy but have some possibly life-altering problems because of burn pits," Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.) said, according to the Post.

KBR officials told the newspaper that the military made the decisions about when to use open-air burning, where to put the burn-pits and what should go in them. They also cited a 2008 study of a burn pit which found there were no long-term effects on health.

"We have asked the Army whether they still believed it was okay for us to provide services to burn pits, and also be at burn pits, and that's because we wanted to make sure our people were adequately protected," Jill Pettibone, a KBR senior vice president, told the Post. "We were assured it was."

In court papers, Craig Postlewaite, acting director of the Defense Department's Force Health Protection and Readiness Programs, said it was "plausible and even likely that a relatively small number of people ... may be affected by more serious, longer term health effects," the Post reported.

But he added: "Although disposing of certain substances in burn pits may not be ideal from a health standpoint, on an installation in a hostile environment in wartime, there may not be any other viable options."

A Defense Department spokeswoman told the newspaper that the government was studying the exposures and that "our number one priority is the health of service members."

Judge Roger Titus is considering whether to allow the case to proceed, the Post said.

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