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The Environmental Legacy of War

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We are now out of Iraq, at least sort of. So now everyone can start putting their bad memories of the American occupation behind them, right? Of course, Americans forgot this yesterday, after all Real Housewives of Lubbock is on. But the Iraqis have a lot of reminders. Among them–massive and unmitigated pollution.

“Open-air burn pits have operated widely at military sites in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the Department of Veterans Affairs notes on its website. On hundreds of camps and bases across the two countries, the U.S. military and its contractors incinerated toxic waste, including unexploded ordnance, plastics and Styrofoam, asbestos, formaldehyde, arsenic, pesticides and neurotoxins, medical waste (even amputated limbs), heavy metals and what the military refers to as “radioactive commodities.” The burns have released mutagens and carcinogens, including uranium and other isotopes, volatile organic compounds, hexachlorobenzene, and, that old favorite, dioxin (aka Agent Orange).

The military pooh-poohs the problem, despite a 2009 Pentagon document noting “an estimated 11 million pounds [5,000 tonnes] of hazardous waste” produced by American troops, the Times of London reported. In any case, it says, the waste isn’t all that toxic, and there is no hard evidence troops were harmed. Of course, one reason for that lack of evidence, reports the Institute of Medicine (which found 53 toxins in the air above the Balad air base alone), is that the Pentagon won’t or can’t document what it burned and buried, or where it did so.

The little media attention that has been paid to this massive pollution has dimly illuminated its potential impact on U.S. troops. Left in mephitic darkness are the contractors, often impoverished South Asians, who did the dirty work at the bases, as well as Iraqi civilians who live and farm nearby. The Times of London reported that “open acid canisters sit within easy reach of children, and discarded batteries lie close to irrigated farmland,” causing people to sicken and rats to die “next to soiled containers.”

The environmental issue is a hearts-and-minds thing. When Iraqis babies are dying of cancer, they will remember why this is happening. I realize that environmental considerations are never going to be a top priority during wartime, proper mitigation of pollution is a very important issue, both for the ecosystem and for the people who live in it.

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