Although the U.S. has spent millions to build incinerators in Afghanistan to avoid exposing anyone to toxic smoke from open burning, American troops sent waste to an Afghan-operated open pit for five months last year, according to an inspector general's report issued late Monday.
The Afghans continued to burn their own dangerous waste -- including batteries, tires and plastic -- in the pit because they didn't want to spend money on fuel to run new, U.S.-provided incinerators, which stood unused behind a locked gate, the report found.
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction's report said the incidents violate a 2010 Pentagon prohibition against using such pits except in extraordinary circumstances. U.S. forces did not notify Congress, as required, to seek an exemption from the ban, the report said.
"This is another case of U.S. taxpayer dollars going up in smoke," said John F. Sopko, the inspector general. "Congress was never told about it -- and worst of all, the health of U.S. troops has been put needlessly at risk."
U.S. forces at Shindand Airbase in western Afghanistan sent waste to the Afghan burn pit until June of last year, Sopko said, and Afghan forces continued to burn waste in the pit until October.
Among the items burned were batteries, plastic, tires and aerosol cans, Sopko's office said. Those items are prohibited from being burned in open pits under the Pentagon's 2010 order.
In response to a draft report on Shindand, the U.S. Central Command, or Centcom, said it had directed U.S. forces in Afghanistan to find out why the pit was used. It said U.S. commanders are encouraging Afghans to use incinerators, but have no authority to compel them.
"The Afghans fail to use the incinerators because they do not perceive that the health benefits of using the incinerators are worth the cost of the fuel to run them,'' Centcom said, according to Sopko's report.
Centcom denied that prohibited items such as batteries, plastics, tires and aerosol cans were included in U.S.-generated waste, the report said.
Sopko asked Centcom to determine which officials were responsible for authorizing the burn pit and to hold them accountable. He requested a written response within 90 days.
"Toxic smoke emanating from Afghan burn pits poses a threat to the health of coalition personnel serving with Afghans at Shindand Airbase and will not be confined to the Afghan-controlled side of the base," Sopko wrote in a letter to Centcom.
U.S. forces burned waste in a pit before the incinerators arrived in 2011 as part of a $4.4-million facility, according to the inspector general's office. The incinerators broke down and were repaired – yet U.S. forces sent waste to the Afghan burn pit for five months afterward, the report said.
A Department of Veterans Affairs allergy specialist told Congress in 2009 that exposure can increase the risk of death from lung cancer or cardiovascular disease.
Alarmed by veterans' complaints of lung ailments from exposure to burn pits in Iraq, Congress ordered the VA to set up an open registry for such complaints. The VA's Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry went online last month.
Veterans' groups and their supporters in Congress hope the registry will lead to disability payments for burn-pit victims similar to benefits received by Vietnam veterans for exposure to Agent Orange. It took decades for the Vietnam veterans to begin receiving benefits.
But veterans' groups have criticized the VA registry, saying it is riddled with software glitches.
About 10,000 veterans have attempted to register but failed, said Daniel Sullivan of the Sgt. Sullivan Center, a nonprofit that advocates research on post-deployment illnesses. But Sullivan said the VA told him 9,500 veterans had registered in the first three weeks.
Adrian Atizado, of the advocacy group Disabled American Veterans, said he was unable to register his health problems from burn-pit exposure because the registry could find no record of his Gulf War service.
The VA media affairs office did not respond to requests for comment.
Veterans of Operation Desert Shield in 1990 and Operation Desert Storm in 1991 are eligible to register, along with those who served after Sept. 11, 2001, in Iraq, Afghanistan and Djibouti, a small country on the Horn of Africa where the U.S. has a military base.
Veterans' advocates say exposure to toxic smoke from burn pits can cause respiratory illnesses and long-term health problems, including bronchitis and cancer. They want more government-funded research.
"There needs to be research that hits the gold standard that would allow [the VA] to say that, like with Agent Orange, veterans who were exposed to burn pits have developed long-term health conditions," Atizado said.
U.S. Rep. Timothy H. Bishop (D-N.Y.) has introduced legislation requiring the Defense Department to set up three centers to study, diagnose and treat aliments caused by burn pit exposure.
The VA's website says current research does not suggest that exposure to burn pits causes long-term health problems. The VA says widespread fine dust and pollution in Iraq and Afghanistan may pose a greater danger than the pits.
But the VA also says, "Veterans who were closer to burn-pit smoke or exposed for longer periods may be at greater risk. Health effects depend on a number of other factors, such as the kind of waste being burned and wind direction."
Although toxins in burn-pit smoke may affect the skin, eyes, respiratory and cardiovascular systems, the VA says, "Most of the irritation is temporary and resolves once the exposure is gone.''
The VA says it is processing disability applications by veterans "on a case by case basis'' for ailments that veterans say were caused by burn pits.
Richard Weidman of Vietnam Veterans of America said he is not aware of a single veteran who has been approved for disability benefits based on health problems linked to burn-pit exposure.
The independent Institute of Medicine concluded in 2011 that it didn't have enough data to determine whether exposure to burn pits had long-term health effects. The institute studied burn pits at Joint Base Balad in Iraq, where veterans attributed leukemia, lymphoma, congestive heart problems, neurological conditions, bronchitis, skin rashes and sleep disorders to burn pit exposure.
"Service in Iraq and Afghanistan in general – rather than exposure to burn pits only – might be associated with long-term health effects,'' said the study, sponsored by the VA.
The institute recommended a long-term study to "determine their incidence of chronic diseases, including cancers, that tend not to show up for decades.''
A study of 80 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with respiratory problems, published in 2011 by the New England Journal of Medicine, found a strong association with a lung condition, constrictive bronchiolitis, that is rare in otherwise healthy young adults. Possible causes were exposure to burn pits, a sulfur mine fire in Iraq, and desert dust storms.
Sopko's office has issued three previous reports alleging improper burning of waste in burn pits on U.S.-operated bases in Afghanistan.
Last December, Sopko reported that the U.S. spent $5.4 million on incinerators that were never used at Forward Operating Base Sharana in eastern Afghanistan, where waste was burned in an open pit. "This project appears to have been a complete waste,'' Sopko said at the time.
In July 2013, Spoko reported that an open burn pit was used at Camp Leatherneck in southern Afghanistan, where four incinerators installed at a cost of $11.5 million were not being used to full capacity.