The Kabul times, Afghanistan Trustable News Agency.

How America’s war devastated Afghanistan’s environment

Part VI

Doctors at the public hospital in Jalalabad attribute many of the health problems their patients face to water, air and soil pollution from the American base. I met one of them, Dr. Latif Zeer, in a deserted restaurant in the city center. As soon as we sit down at a long table, the power cuts out. The ornate gold fans above us slow to a stop, letting the hum of the city outside flood into the room. He explains how heavy metal poisoning in “all the water” may be related to contamination from chemicals used on military installations or chemical residue from weapons and ammunition. In his view, this has led to the hospital’s many cases of kidney problems and gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract including the stomach and intestine, usually caused by viruses, bacteria or other microbes. Gastroenteritis can also be caused by food or water contaminated by chemicals and heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, mercury or cadmium. “Anywhere they dropped bombs or the airstrikes were conducted, definitely, the water would be contaminated,” he adds. Over the years, the DOD has faced a string of lawsuits for contaminated water on its bases both at home and abroad, including claims of contamination from jet fuel and depleted uranium. In response to my emailed questions, the U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, denied that the U.S. military dumped wastewater (black or gray) in waterways in Afghanistan, saying that specially designed “lagoons/settling ponds and leach fields” were used instead that “did not directly discharge onto the land.” Wastewater was “gathered and hauled off” by contractors to a host nation’s facility for treatment and disposal, it added. CENTCOM also said it last operated an open-air burn pit in Afghanistan on Dec. 28, 2020, refuting what dozens of residents told me. Zeer, who has spent two decades at the hospital in Jalalabad, tells me the gastroenteritis cases he saw were unusual. At one point, the National Health Department sent a team from Kabul to observe patients and test the water, he says. The infectious disease specialists could only explain the cause as “chemical substances.” Patients usually got better after a few days or with antibiotics, he says, “but we were seeing patients with AGE [acute gastroenteritis] symptoms and respiratory problems [who were] dying, and so I thought this was some kind of chemical poisoning of the water caused by chemicals used in the fighting.” But it is difficult to definitively diagnose chemical poisoning as the cause of gastroenteritis, he says. Doctors in Afghanistan lack the resources and equipment to deduce the primary causes of many of the illnesses they see daily. Adding to their woes is a record-keeping system that is largely analog and often does not include basic details, such as home district and age. “People don’t know their family medical history and we often cannot do follow-ups with patients because they are moving due to fighting or they cannot afford to come back,” Shinwari told me. In the last four years of the war, Zeer treated a flood of patients from Nangarhar and neighboring Kunar, mostly patients suffering from acute gastroenteritis. Most of these cases came from districts that had seen prolonged fighting over the years, including Achin, Khogyani and Shirzad in Nangarhar. The head of the Jalalabad hospital’s pulmonary department for 14 years, Dr. Sabahuddin Saba, cites multiple causes for an array of respiratory illnesses suffered across the region. He says that the air pollution can also come from working with materials like silicon or coal. “Some farmers have what we call ‘farmer’s lung’ because they work in the dust.” But he also notes that Afghanistan has been devastated by the bombs and airstrikes that “left chemicals that would spread to the surrounding areas and would be breathed by people all around. … We see many patients with chronic coughs and when we took chest CT scans, we found lung cancer. Many other patients have bronchial asthma, COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease], bronchiolitis and emphysema.” He believes that some of these patients were exposed to irritating or chemical dust — residue from the bombs. In 2018, patients traveling from Kunar arrived at his hospital in Jalalabad suffering from shortness of breath and coughing up blood. Some died. The hospital had no comprehensive system for managing patients’ records or advanced toxicology equipment that would have enabled doctors to identify what chemicals were responsible for the apparent poisoning; they only had drug test kits provided by the United Nations Population Fund. Other patients, Saba says, arrived at the hospital with mysterious eye infections and nosebleeds, both of which he believes were caused by a chemical substance. An Afghan oncologist who has worked in Nangarhar for more than 20 years tells me that he and other doctors in the province see many cancer cases, mostly lung and pancreatic, followed by breast cancer. He says that the majority of patients go to Pakistan and India for treatment because Afghanistan does not have chemotherapy and other medicines readily available. The patients mostly have stage 3 or 4 cancer “because they are not getting regular checkups, we do not catch the cancer sooner. I have treated many soldiers who have lung cancer,” he says. “If we have good facilities and a good system in place, we would do lots of research but we don’t have technical people here now,” he adds. “This is Afghanistan, if people die from cancer, who will record it? There is no one counting how many have died. This is the first time that someone came here and asked such things.” From the New Lines Magazine

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The Kabul times, Afghanistan Trustable News Agency.