Chemistry, lung toxicity and mutagenicity of burn pit smoke-related particulate matter

Part Fibre Toxicol. 2021 Dec 16;18(1):45. doi: 10.1186/s12989-021-00435-w.


Background: Open burning of anthropogenic sources can release hazardous emissions and has been associated with increased prevalence of cardiopulmonary health outcomes. Exposure to smoke emitted from burn pits in military bases has been linked with respiratory illness among military and civilian personnel returning from war zones. Although the composition of the materials being burned is well studied, the resulting chemistry and potential toxicity of the emissions are not.

Methods: Smoke emission condensates from either flaming or smoldering combustion of five different types of burn pit-related waste: cardboard; plywood; plastic; mixture; and mixture/diesel, were obtained from a laboratory-scale furnace coupled to a multistage cryotrap system. The primary emissions and smoke condensates were analyzed for a standardized suite of chemical species, and the condensates were studied for pulmonary toxicity in female CD-1 mice and mutagenic activity in Salmonella (Ames) mutagenicity assay using the frameshift strain TA98 and the base-substitution strain TA100 with and without metabolic activation (S9 from rat liver).

Results: Most of the particles in the smoke emitted from flaming and smoldering combustion were less than 2.5 µm in diameter. Burning of plastic containing wastes (plastic, mixture, or mixture/diesel) emitted larger amounts of particulate matter (PM) compared to other types of waste. On an equal mass basis, the smoke PM from flaming combustion of plastic containing wastes caused more inflammation and lung injury and was more mutagenic than other samples, and the biological responses were associated with elevated polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon levels.

Conclusions: This study suggests that adverse health effects of burn pit smoke exposure vary depending on waste type and combustion temperature; however, burning plastic at high temperature was the most significant contributor to the toxicity outcomes. These findings will provide a better understanding of the complex chemical and combustion temperature factors that determine toxicity of burn pit smoke and its potential health risks at military bases.

Keywords: Inhalation; Lung toxicity; Military burn pit smoke; Mutagenicity; Particulate matter.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollutants* / analysis
  • Air Pollutants* / toxicity
  • Animals
  • Female
  • Incineration
  • Lung
  • Mice
  • Mutagenicity Tests
  • Mutagens
  • Particulate Matter* / toxicity
  • Rats


  • Air Pollutants
  • Mutagens
  • Particulate Matter