A burn pit, a common way to get rid of waste at United States (U.S.) military bases in war zones (e.g., Iraq and Afghanistan), produces potentially toxic compounds in the air. As a result, tens of thousands of deployed military and civilian personnel are exposed to burn pit smoke during their military service. Importantly, burn pit smoke can react in the atmosphere to produce secondary (aged) products that may have even greater toxicity. Consequently, the actual composition of what one is exposed to is mostly aged products not what is freshly emitted from burn pit combustions. Thus, it is critical to understand the health consequences of aged burn pit smoke exposure. While there is a high prevalence of respiratory conditions in veterans returning from war zones, the relationship to burn pit smoke exposure is not well understood. Particularly, the variabilities in toxicological responses to aged and fresh burn pit smoke have yet to be fully established and evaluated in the context of chemical composition. To address this important research issue, we will use novel approaches to 1) simulate burn pit smoke emissions in the atmosphere, 2) evaluate their mutagenic and lung toxic responses following exposures, and 3) determine rank order of adverse health effects induced by different burn pit emissions.
Specific aim 1 will determine differences in physico-chemical properties of fresh and aged burn pit smoke.
Specific aim 2 will use in vitro models to identify key factor(s) of the burn pit smoke that are likely driving their biological responses. This research will be carried out through a collaboration with laboratories at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the University of North Carolina, and North Carolina State University, allowing for a unique combination of expertise in combustion science, analytical chemistry, and cell biology. This project will provide critical information needed to characterize chemical evolution of burn pit smoke in the atmosphere and to identify primary chemical drivers of possible adverse health effects (mutagenic and lung toxic effects) associated with aged burn pit smoke exposure.

Public Health Relevance

There is substantial evidence that military and civilian personnel returning from war zones have a high prevalence of adverse health outcomes associated with exposures to smoke emitted by burning waste (i.e., burn pits) in military bases but the relationship to burn pit smoke exposure is not well understood. This proposal represents an innovative approach to simulate the chemical evolution of military burn pit smoke in the atmosphere and investigate how such changes promote similar or distinct health outcomes. Findings from this proposal will be of great interest not just to military communities but to public health professionals, providing the basis for future investigations focusing on which components of burn pit smoke exposures are casually associated with possible long-term health effects.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS)
Small Research Grants (R03)
Project #
Application #
Study Section
Systemic Injury by Environmental Exposure (SIEE)
Program Officer
Thompson, Claudia L
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of North Carolina Chapel Hill
Public Health & Prev Medicine
Schools of Medicine
Chapel Hill
United States
Zip Code