For years, Pentagon officials have insisted that the open-air burn pits incinerating tons of garbage and other waste on U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan could not be causing long-term health problems for our troops. But an unclassified memo (.pdf) dated more than a year ago and recently leaked to Spencer Ackerman over at Wired’s Danger Room indicates that the Army knew very well that the air quality, at least at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan, could have dire health consequences for anyone living and working there between 2002 and 2010.

And the “primary contributor” to the dangerous levels of particulate matter (PM 10  and PM 2.5, which refers to the size of the contaminants) found in the air? Burn pits.

“The long term health risk associated with air conditions at BAF from PM 2.5 and PM 10 indicates there is a potential that long-term exposure at these levels may increase the risk for developing chronic health conditions such as reduced lung function or exacerbated chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, aetherosclerosis, or other cardiopulmonary diseases,” according to the memo.

Wow. For anyone following this story for the last several years as TAC has (we devoted a feature to it in our Oct. 1, 2009 issue of the magazine, and I have continued with several follow-up blog posts and a series of reports for Antiwar.com, as well) knows this is big news.

It’s big because it proves the Pentagon has had more concrete proof about the dangerous air quality around the pits and what it has done to tens of thousands of troops in the field than it’s ever let on. In fact, as recently as July 2011, the DoD’s American Forces Press Service claimed, “there is no evidence to suggest that service members deployed to U.S. Central Command are being disproportionately affected by environmental factors.” That was months after the April 2011 memo published by Ackerman today.

In June 2010, even after admitting that chronic health problems were plaguing servicemembers stationed at Joint Base Balad, at a 30 percent higher rate than other bases, Craig Postlewaite, a Pentagon spokesman, told Kelly Kennedy of the Army Times, “We clearly understand it can cause problems in some people. … What we’re not sure is if there are long-term effects or latent effects.”

Meanwhile, veterans have been complaining about strange and debilitating health problems for years now. Like former Staff Sgt. Daniel Meyer, who is now completely dependent on an oxygen tank to get through his day. I interviewed him in February. He has a rare, irreversible lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans,which can be brought on by inhaling toxic fumes. He’s only 27. He believes that he was exposed to burn pits while stationed at Iraq and Afghanistan with the Air Force. “I have gone from an extremely fit military man to a very limited man who is completely dependent on my wife for help with everything,” he told me.

A study in 2010 by Dr. Anthony Szema at Stony Brook University in New York found that 7 percent of troops who served at Balad Air Base early in the Iraq War have come home with a “serious lung injury,” including elevated levels of acute respiratory illnesses, asthma, and lung damage. Szema is now conducting a major study of veterans exposed to the burn pits. He will be assisted by BurnPits360, which has become a clearinghouse for veterans suffering from conditions they believe are connected to their time in-theater. The site is also maintaining a registry of those veterans and their stories.

Thirty-eight of 49 veterans biopsied at Vanderbilt University Medical Center were found to have constrictive bronchiolitis, an illness that causes permanent shortness of breath during exercise, according to a 2011 study by Dr. Robert Miller, associate professor of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

“These are inhalation injuries, suffered in the line of duty,” said Miller who believes the burn pits are but one source of the air pollution plaguing sick vets. A number of the vets he biopsied had also been exposed to the 2003 sulfur plant fire in Mosul.

According to a report by USA Today last May, the military has seen a 251 percent increase in the rate of neurological disorders, a 47 percent increase in the rate of respiratory issues, and 34 percent increase in the rate of cardiovascular disease.

And what are these “burn pits?” A convenient way to get rid of waste on the bases, they acted as open-air trash heaps that burned hazardous waste (including, by some accounts, amputated limbs and used hypodermic needles), hardware, Styrofoam, lithium batteries, rubber, dining-hall refuse, petroleum products, pressure-treated wood, plastics, animal carcasses, latrine waste, aluminum cans, and unexploded ordnance, among other things. Regulation incinerators were brought in only late in the war and under pressure.

Thanks to congressional action brought on by veterans’ advocacy groups like the DAV and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association (IAVA), most of the pits have been shut down over the last three years and replaced by incinerators. Of course, people like Meyer and others who will never be the same healthwise say it was a day too late.

Above photo credit: U.S Air Force/Senior Airman Julianne Showalter