Military Toxic Exposure: Burn Pits
What is a Burn Pit and When Were They Used?
Burn Pits were used all in the post-9/11 era during Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom, with some still being used in a limited fashion in Afghanistan today. These burn pits were very large, open-air fire pits in which the military and its contractors disposed of all waste generated at military installments. Among the materials burned were plastics, entire vehicles, medical waste, rubber, chemical drums, and so on. The sizes of these burn pits varied depending on the size of the base they were serving. The largest burn pit, located at Joint Base Balad, spanned over 25 acres of land when it was at its largest.
What toxins were released from burning these materials?
A range of toxins including hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds, dioxins, and furans were released into the air from these burn pits. The toxins released by the burn pits vary per military installment as it is unknown exactly what was being burned at each location at a given time.
Air samples have been collected and tested by the Department of Defense, however, some of these results are still classified. The declassified air testing results show harmful levels of chemicals in ambient air, which is the air not directly within the stream of the smoke. There is currently no way of knowing exactly which chemicals, or the levels of these chemicals, veterans working directly with the burn pits or veterans living within the stream of the smoke were exposed to due to a lack air of testing in these areas.
Agent Orange and Burn Pits
The ambient air samples tested by the DoD revealed that some of the harmful chemicals in Agent Orange, a powerful defoliant used during the Vietnam War, were also found in the air surrounding burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among these chemicals was 2, 3, 7, 8-TCDD, the most potent of all dioxins. This particular dioxin is listed in VA’s regulations as an herbicide agent that provokes the presumption of service connection for the diseases related to Agent Orange. It is possible that veterans exposed to burn pits may develop many of the same health conditions caused by exposure to Agent Orange.
The Burn Pit Registry
Created by an act of Congress, the Burn Pit Registry is where veterans can document their exposure to burn pits and report heath concerns thought to be a result of this exposure. As of April 2018, nearly 135,000 veterans and service members have taken part in the registry. The purpose of creating the registry was to gather information from those exposed in an effort to better determine the effects such exposure may present. Unfortunately, this database does not provide the scientific community enough evidence to draw any precise conclusions.
How Does VA Adjudicate Burn Pits Claims?
VA does not consider any disabilities presumptively associated with exposure to burn pit smoke. Because VA hasn’t established any presumptive conditions, veterans filing a claim must obtain a medical opinion stating that their condition is at least as likely as not a result of exposure to burn pit smoke in order to receive VA disability compensation.
VA adjudicates burn pit claims on a case-by-case basis. Your decision is based on the facts unique to your claim. When deciding burn pit claims, VA looks for three essential elements in a veteran’s case:
- The event in service, such as the exposure to burn pits;
- A diagnosed disability or condition for which the veteran is filing a claim;
- A medical nexus, or link, between exposure and your disease.
Recent Court Case Involving Civilian Contractors and Burn Pits
Civilian contractor Veronica Landry was sent to Mosul Air Force Base in Iraq while working for Kellogg Brown and Root. After Ms. Landry’s time in Iraq, she developed a severe lung disease and PTSD. After bringing her case before a U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Workers’ Compensation judge, she was granted healthcare benefits. The judge ruled that her lung disease was a direct result of exposure to burn pits used at the military installment.
The question now is if this decision will have an impact on future burn pit claims before the VA. Although this is a step in the right direction, it is unlikely that this ruling will impact veterans’ claims as no precedent has been set that VA is required to follow.
What are Some Common Conditions Related to Exposure to Burn Pits?
Although no presumption exists, some medical conditions can be linked to exposure to burn pits. Current science is unable to provide us with a definitive list of potential health effects stemming from burn pit exposure, however, some commonly reported conditions include:
- Autoimmune disorders (e.g. Lupus)
- Bladder Cancer
- Chronic B-Cell Leukemias
- Constrictive Bronchiolitis
- Diabetes Mellitus Type 2
- Hodgkin’s Disease
- Ischemic Heart Disease
- Lung Cancer and other respiratory cancers
- Multiple Myeloma
- Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Prostate Cancer
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