SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- Hundreds of veterans coming back from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are falling ill and many are dying of what's being called the new "Agent Orange": open air burn pits.
There's no proven cause but vets and their families say they know why.
Lieutenant Colonel Gwen Chiaramonte is proud to have served her country. At Balad Air Force Base in Iraq she was a combat stress therapist, familiar with exposure to danger off base. "You worry but you think you just have to live," she said.
Now she believes there was danger from within too: An open air pit where the base's garbage was burned. "They they just threw everything in. Vehicles, tires, plastic bottles, trash, medical waste, dead animals. Then they would pour jet fuel on it and just light it," she said.
Chiaramonte says the burn pit spewed columns of ashy smoke that often blew right into her nearby housing unit. "It would smell like it would be on fire," she said.
She started getting constant nose bleeds. Then when she got home, the really bad news: A rare form of aggressive ovarian cancer.
Hundreds of former and current service members are filing claims with the Department of Veterans affairs, blaming harmful emissions from the burn pits for causing mysterious lung diseases, and cancers.
They've filed class action lawsuits, alleging the operator of the pits KBR and its former parent company Halliburton acted negligently. KBR denies that, and argues as a military contractor it shares the same immunity as the government from lawsuits over war related injuries.
But Dr. Anthony Szema at Stonybrook University School of Medicine in New York says: "They should not have been burning trash in the absence of an incinerator."
Dr. Szema is studying reports of cancers from returning soldiers, and the possible connection to burn pits.
"Military contractors were relying on the fact that they did not have to abide by U.S. EPA laws, they could do anything they wanted," he said. "If you are burning styrofoam breakfast trays, medical waste and electronics then you have this toxic amalgam of really a perfect storm of toxicity."
As for Chiaramonte, she's in remission. "I am lucky that I caught mine early," she said. Her doctor wrote a letter to the VA saying it is "plausible" that exposures to chemicals in the burn pit smoke "contributed to her diagnosis of this rare cancer."
Though the VA granted her 100% disability based on other war related injuries, they denied any connection to the cancer. "I am not going to just stop and say I have been compensated so I will just go away. I want them to admit it," she said.
The VA says at this time research does not show evidence of long term health problems from almost 300 burn pits, some of which are still operating in Afghanistan today.
A U.S. district court recently ruled the class actions can proceed. KBR has appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme court.
Under a law passed last year the VA is obligated to start an online burnpit registry for service members who were exposed to the burnpits. It was supposed to be up and running in January, but it has been delayed. There's information about on the VA website at: http://www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/burnpits/action-plan.asp
A family of a veteran started her own civilian registry, called Burnpits360. http://www.burnpits360.org/About-Us.html
Dr. Szema is using the registry for his research.
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