Lynzy Billing Wins a 2024 Izzy for Environmental Reporting on Afghanistan

Lynzy Billing, a freelance journalist writing for Inside Climate News and New Lines Magazine, has won a 2024 Izzy Award for her probing reporting on the environmental damage and public health impacts the U.S. military left behind after 20 years of war in Afghanistan.

A year after America’s abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, Billing spent weeks as one of only a small number of foreign journalists in the country and interviewed more than six dozen villagers and medical authorities around three of the Pentagon’s largest military installations in Jalalabad, Kandahar and Bagram.

As she traversed the Afghan countryside at considerable personal risk, President Joe Biden signed legislation in Washington that represented the largest expansion of veterans’ benefits in generations in response to the Pentagon’s lax environmental protections of U.S. service members exposed to toxic air pollutants from burn pits on U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

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The new law added 23 toxic burn pit and exposure-related health conditions for which veterans could receive benefits, including bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and nine newly eligible types of respiratory cancers, as the president decried “toxic smoke, thick with poisons, spreading through the air and into the lungs of our troops.”

But neither Biden nor Congress said anything, or promised any assistance, to the Afghans who lived near U.S. military bases or worked on them and still suffer from many of those same illnesses and cancers. Billing tracked them down, gathered their medical records, interviewed them and their doctors and bore witness to their plight.

Residents living by Jalalabad airfield wash in the stream that flows from a hole in the high wall surrounding the base. Credit: Lynzy Billing

The Izzy Award, for “outstanding achievement in independent media,” is conferred by the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College and named after the late I.F. “Izzy” Stone, a crusading journalist who launched I.F. Stone’s Weekly in 1953 and covered McCarthyism, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and government corruption.

For Billing, chronicling the environmental devastation had a deeply personal dimension. Born and orphaned in Afghanistan, where both her parents were killed during the country’s civil conflict long before the American arrival, Billing was adopted by a British family that ran a school in neighboring Pakistan. The family moved to Israel when she was 12 and then back to England, where Billing went to college. 

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She only came to understand the true scale of the environmental damage that the U.S. military had inflicted on Afghanistan when she first returned as a journalist in 2019 to explore her own family’s story and began her reporting on killings during so-called night raids by U.S.-trained Afghan special forces. Her expose in ProPublica last year won the Berger Award from Columbia University, the Ed Cunningham Award from Overseas Press Club, the Michael Kelly Award from The Atlantic, an Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio Television Digital News Association and an award for overseas coverage from the Military Reporters & Editors.

Her reporting on the environment in Afghanistan was co-produced by Inside Climate News and New Lines Magazine and supported in part by a grant from The Fund for Investigative Journalism. 

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