"In every battle there comes a time when both sides consider themselves beaten; then, he who continues the attack wins"

Burn Pits: The "Agent Orange" of the Iraq War


"We don't know if we are receiving fire... or that's exploding paint cans... sometimes, soldiers covered up their air conditioners with towels at night, to block the smell and soot, and by the morning the towels would be black with stuff… followed by a sharp chemical smell that I was told was 'annoying but not harmful'...”


Army Specialist stationed at Joint-Base Balad, Iraq in 2003-2004

“...Joint Base Balad is the worst environmental site I have personally visited.... I've witnessed burning plastics, Styrofoam, medical and non-medical wastes while using jet-propellant fuel as an accelerant... It is my professional opinion... that there is an acute health hazard for individuals… also the possibility for chronic health hazards associated with the smoke…”

USAF LtCol. Darrin L. Curtis, PhD.

20 December 2006, Joint-Base Balad, Iraq

“… no soil samples were taken, no air quality tests were done before for after the burn pits were constructed…” and “when KBR was constructing Camp Taji they knew the ground was hot. They knew the ground was probably contaminated…"

Rick Lamberth, Contractor

Former KBR Construction Manager, Burn-pit victim

What was burned in Iraq?

When thinking about burn pits in Iraq... consider lead paint exposure in children? Imagine that being burned in a fire and inhaled.

Accounts of what was disposed of and burned in the burn pits throughout Iraq is very similar with a majority stating the most-commonly burned items were plastic water bottles, Styrofoam’s and papers. A large majority of the burn pits were built near housing units, dining facilities and shops where servicemembers slept, ate and worked. Some bases had numerous “backyard-size pits and others had massive, industrial-size pits” (Percy, 2016, p. 23) much like the one at Joint-Base Balad that was approximately “10 acres”. Although different in size, the environmental effects were very similar base-to-base.

In 2016, New Republic Magazine discusses the “not-so-common” items burned as trash. The list begins with soldiers burning a used Porta-John, dried-up MREs, radio batteries, chemical lights and 25 loads of DEET-soaked tents and that one Iraq veteran states because of that he “tasted the smoke in his mouth for months” (Percy, 2016, p. 23).

Another soldier stated that any uniform that was blood-tinged, ripped beyond repair or was too dirty was thrown into the burn pits to prevent being taken by the enemy.  The uniforms they had been burning since 2004 were either soaked in the insect repellent DEET or infused with Permethrin (a known carcinogen) as part of the initiative to prevent malaria as stated in the Exposures: Permethrin section.

The accelerant used to ignite the burn pits is a jet fuel called “Jet-Propellant 8” or “JP-8”, however when burned it “releases clouds of benzene – a known carcinogen”, dioxins and n-hexane, a neurotoxin (Szema et al., 2010) discussed in the Exposures: Benzene section.

Dr. Anthony Szema, Chief Allergist at the Northport Veterans Affairs Hospital stated in a 2009 Senate testimony that “Ten pounds a day of trash from a household burn barrel may produce as much pollution as a modern, well-controlled incinerator burning 400,000 pounds of trash a day”.

United States Air Force Technical Sergeant (TSgt.) Amie Muller described the Joint-Base Balad burn pit smoke: “I inhaled that stuff all day, all night. Everything that they burned there is illegal to burn in America. That tells you something… it always felt like no matter what shift you worked, the wind always switched and followed you, so it was there when you were at work, it was there in your tents. There was no escaping it” ...

After returning home from Iraq in 2007, TSgt. Muller was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

In February 2017, TSgt. Amie Muller passed away.

Her family has started a foundation in her name "The Amie Muller Foundation" - click any of her pictures below to be directed to their site.

  • Tires, rubber items
  • Lithium batteries
  • Asbestos insulation
  • Pesticide containers (DEET, Permethrin)
  • Styrofoam
  • Oils, lubricants
  • Scrap metals
  • Paints and paint thinner
  • Solvents
  • Plastics (water bottles)
  • Ammo cases
  • Iraqi Ordinance
  • Medical waste (bloodied gauze, needles, etc.)
  • Unused medications (Celebrex, Penicillin, Amoxicillin)
  • Animal bodies
  • Iraqi brush, trees, bushes
  • Military uniforms
  • Human waste (urine, feces, blood, vomit)
  • Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MRE)
  • Jet-Propellant fuels, diesel fuels
  • Treated wood, pallets
  • Deceased human bodies, body parts (Tuberculosis exposure)
  • Cardboards
  • Papers and paper products
  • Electrical wiring
  • Radios and telecommunication systems
  • Vehicle parts