For decades, the military has burned plastics, ammunition, petroleum products, and other waste in massive open-air burn pits. The smoke emanating from these burn pits is filled with toxic chemicals, which can cause a host of serious health issues, including cancer. Veterans may qualify for VA disability benefits.
On a military base in another country, you don’t have many options for disposing of trash, waste, and debris. The United States military has utilized open-air burn pits to solve this dilemma.
Unfortunately, the smoke released from burn pits often contains hazardous chemicals and toxins, which can cause serious health issues in military service members stationed nearby. VA disability benefits may be available for individuals with health conditions related to toxic burn-pit exposure.
What are burn pits?
Since 1990, the United States military has built at least 28 burn pits on military bases across the Middle East. These dedicated sects of land are used to burn:
- Medical waste
- Human waste
- Unexploded ammunition
- Petroleum products
- Discarded food
- Other military waste
Typically, these products are incinerated—a controlled process involving incredibly high temperatures—and the release of smoke, toxins, and gasses can be contained. However, burn pits offer less control over combustion. Because burn pits are out in the open, smoke and toxins are released directly into the air.
A DOD-supported study found burn-pit smoke contains measurable amounts of:
- Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
- Volatile organic compounds
- Toxic organic halogenated dioxins
- Heavy metals
Burning plastics appeared to be the biggest contributor to toxic fumes and smoke. Once these chemicals are released into the air, they can also contaminate local water supplies, increasing the risk of toxic exposure.
Some burn pits, including one located at Joint Base Balad, in Iraq, can cover up to 10 acres of land. Given the massive amounts of waste burned in these pits, the potential for hazardous air and water quality is high.
What are the health effects and symptoms of burn-pit exposure?
The VA acknowledges that “toxins in burn-pit smoke may affect the skin, eyes, respiratory and cardiovascular systems, gastrointestinal tract, and internal organs.”
Acute symptoms of burn-pit exposure include:
- Breathing difficulties
- Burning of the eyes and throat
- Itchy skin
Many of the toxins released in burn-pit smoke—including dioxins—are incredibly dangerous and linked with serious health issues. The VA now recognizes 33 presumptive conditions for chronic burn-pit exposure:
- Adenocarcinoma of the trachea
- Adenosquamous carcinoma of the lung
- Asthma that was diagnosed after service
- Brain cancer
- Chronic bronchitis
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- Chronic rhinitis
- Chronic sinusitis
- Constrictive bronchiolitis or obliterative bronchiolitis
- Gastrointestinal cancer of any type
- Granulomatous disease
- Head cancer of any type
- Interstitial lung disease
- Kidney cancer
- Large cell carcinoma of the lung
- Lymphatic cancer of any type
- Lymphoma of any type
- Neck cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
- Pulmonary fibrosis
- Reproductive cancer of any type
- Respiratory (breathing-related) cancer of any type
- Salivary gland-type tumors of the lung
- Salivary gland-type tumors of the trachea
- Sarcomatoid carcinoma of the lung
- Squamous cell carcinoma of the larynx
- Squamous cell carcinoma of the trachea
- Typical and atypical carcinoid of the lung
The VA may add to this list if additional information links other health issues to military service in proximity to open-air burn pits.
How do I know if I have been exposed to burn pits?
Since the 1990s, the military has relied heavily on burn pits as a form of waste management in countries across the Middle East. You may have been exposed to burn pits if you served in any of these regions after August 2, 1990:
- Saudi Arabia
- The United Arab Emirates
Additionally, you may have been exposed to burn pits if you served in any of these regions after September 11, 2001:
The VA notes that burn-pit exposure also extends to those who served in or near:
- The Arabian Sea
- The Gulf of Aden
- The Gulf of Oman
- The Persian Gulf
- The Red Sea
- The airspace above any listed region
It is important to seek medical attention if you were on active military duty in one of these locations, were exposed to burn-pit smoke, and experienced any adverse health issues.
Do VA disability benefits cover injuries caused by burn-pit exposure?
Thanks to the 2022 PACT Act, you may qualify for VA disability benefits if you have suffered from adverse health issues because of exposure to a military burn pit. Benefits can be awarded if the following conditions apply:
- You have been diagnosed with an illness or health condition caused by exposure to a specific toxic hazard in the air, soil, or water.
- You served on active duty while you were exposed to the hazard.
- You were not dishonorably discharged.
Some health conditions, like those noted above, are considered “presumptive.” In other words, the VA will automatically presume that your health issue was caused by your military service.
If you suffer from a non-presumptive condition, you can still receive benefits. However, you will have the burden of proving a link between your exposure and your military service.
Helpful evidence in establishing a link includes your DD214 and other separation documents, doctor’s reports, lab results, X-rays, service treatment records, and a Nexus letter.
You can file a claim for burn-pit VA disability benefits online.
Join the Burn-Pit Registry
In 2014, the Department of Veterans Affairs established the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry. This gives the VA insight into the health conditions and issues that may be linked to burn-pit exposure. In turn, the VA can expand its list of presumptive conditions and simplify how veterans obtain benefits for their service-related injuries.
While participation in the VA’s burn-pit registry is voluntary, it is encouraged. You can participate in the registry if you were:
- Deployed in Southwest Asia or Egypt after August 2, 1990
- Deployed to Afghanistan, Djibouti, Syria, or Uzbekistan after September 11, 1990
- Part of Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom, or New Dawn
To register, visit the VA’s secure registry portal online.
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