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These 3 Locations Have Haunting Connections to Strange Illnesses

While some of these illnesses have a likely source, there are a few that have researchers stumped.

By Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi
May 20, 2024 1:00 PM
Afghanistan - Circa 2006: A burn pit at a US base.
Afghanistan - Circa 2006: A burn pit at a US base. (Credit: S and S Imaging/Shutterstock)

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It seemed like a good job at first. Starting in 1917, the United States Radium Corporation hired teenage girls and young women to work as painters. Using fine paintbrushes, the workers applied glow-in-the-dark paint onto watches and military instruments. The paint shone brightly because it contained radium, a substance that management assured the young workers was harmless.

In the book The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, author Kate Moore detailed how the workers were taught to wet the paintbrushes in their mouths. Within a few short years, many died from bone cancer. The corporation denied that radium caused the cancer and fought lawsuits brought by the workers. Scientists and historians now agree that radium was responsible for the workers’ illnesses.

Many people might think workplace hazards are limited to historical events when people didn’t know better. However, diseases continue to be tied to specific locations, and scientists are currently working to better understand these area-specific illnesses.  

1. Military Burn Pits

At military bases in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military burned garbage in massive pits. Everything from food waste to rubber to old electronics went into the smoldering holes. Military members stationed near these bases were exposed to the fire’s emissions. An estimated 3.5 million members of the U.S. military inhaled toxins from these burn pits.

Veterans have reported higher instances of asthma as well as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Problematically, researchers haven’t been able to determine who was exposed to the burn pits and when the exposure occurred. An April 2024 study in JAMA analyzed data from several massive databases to help reconstruct the exposure.

Using service records from the U.S. Department of Defense, the research team arranged the deployment dates and locations for 458,381 veterans who received health care from the Veterans Health Administration (VA). This was the first study to use patient records to identify where and when individuals served.

“We were looking at deployment to bases where burn pits were used. There has been a lot of effort to reconstruct the exposure,” says David A. Savitz, the study’s lead author and a professor of epidemiology at the Brown University School of Public Health.

Illnesses Associated with Burn Pit Exposure

By looking at both service dates and medical records, the research teams were able to see which serious illnesses were most common among those exposed to burn pits. For every 100 days a veteran was stationed at a base with a burn pit, they experienced an increased likelihood of developing asthma, COPD, hypertension, and ischemic stroke.

Integrating these records meant scientists gained confidence that burn pits indeed exposed service members to toxins that contributed to the development of specific diseases. But the makeup of these toxins remains a mystery. Each military base burned different items at varying rates, and scientists don’t have the data needed to determine the pollutants involved.

“We know the exposures were hazardous,” Savitz says. “We don’t know a lot of what was in the emissions of burn pits. But when you’re burning a mix of different types of waste, and there are no environmental controls, and there are people living and working there — it’s a hazard.” 


Read More: Don’t Count on Evolution to Save Us from Toxic Chemicals and Pollution


2. Havana Syndrome in Cuba

In 2016, U.S. diplomatic personnel stationed in Cuba began to have bizarre experiences. Then, they began to have similar health issues.

These government employees told similar stories. They were at their residence or a hotel room in Cuba when they heard a high-pitched sound that lasted for several minutes. For some people, the sound came with a sensation of pressure. Then, they began to have health issues. Some workers had dizziness, ear pain, and tinnitus. They had trouble sleeping and concentrating.

Is Havana Syndrome Real?

Scientists call it the “Havana Syndrome” and say these symptoms are real. Although researchers have been able to identify damage to the inner ear, they have not been able to determine if these attacks caused traumatic brain injury.

In a March 2024 study in JAMA, 28 percent of people with exposure to what the authors referred to as an “anomalous health incident (AHI)” had functional neurological disorders. They had worse balance compared to the controls and greater reports of fatigue, posttraumatic stress disorder, and depression.

In a separate report, neuroimaging did not find any detectable differences between controls and those who experienced AHIs. However, Havana Syndrome is still a mystery to scientists, and neurological damage caused by AHI might not be recognizable at this point. 


Read More: What Is Tinnitus: It's Causes, Effects and Brain Connections


3. Rare Eye Cancer at Auburn University

Ocular melanoma is a rare eye cancer that develops in the cells that produce the pigment that creates a person’s eye color. Scientists aren’t sure why it develops, but they know people with lighter-colored eyes tend to be more at risk.

Ocular melanoma is rare, and only about 2,500 cases are diagnosed each year in the U.S. So when dozens of alumni from Auburn University were diagnosed, researchers wondered if it was an example of a cancer cluster.

Thirty-eight people who attended Auburn University between 1983 and 2001 were later diagnosed with ocular melanoma. In 2018, the diagnoses made headlines after several women came forward and said they were all in the same friend group when they attended Auburn, and they all developed ocular melanoma.

What Is Considered a Cancer Cluster?

Scientists are unsure why such a rare disease has been tied to a specific location. Studies, including one by the Alabama Department of Health, suggest the diagnoses do not meet the statistical criteria needed to be deemed a cancer cluster.

The American Cancer Society describes cancer clusters as occurring when a higher-than-usual number of cancers is reported. The cancer must be the same type and occur in a defined geographic area over a specific period of time.

Currently, scientists are unable to determine what caused the unusual ocular cancer rates among the Auburn alums. Some are calling for more research into both ocular melanoma and the unexpected amount of cases at the university.


Read More: Can a Dream Warn You About Cancer?


Article Sources

Our writers at Discovermagazine.com use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:


Emilie Lucchesi has written for some of the country's largest newspapers, including The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and an MA from DePaul University. She also holds a Ph.D. in communication from the University of Illinois-Chicago with an emphasis on media framing, message construction and stigma communication. Emilie has authored three nonfiction books. Her third, "A Light in the Dark: Surviving More Than Ted Bundy," releases October 3, 2023 from Chicago Review Press and is co-authored with survivor Kathy Kleiner Rubin.

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