VA Benefits for Exposure to Jet Fuel
What is Jet Fuel?
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), jet propulsion fuel-5 (JP-5) and jet propulsion fuel-8 (JP-8) are kerosene-based fuels used in military aircraft. “Jet A,” the type of fuel used in civilian aircraft, is sometimes used in military aircraft as well. All three types of jet fuel (i.e., JP-5, JP-8, and Jet A) colorless liquids that are flammable and smell like kerosene. Jet fuel is composed of hydrocarbons, which are compounds that only contain the elements carbon and hydrogen. Hydrocarbons are found naturally in the earth as crude oil.
Effect on Environment
Many things can happen when JP-5, JP-8, and Jet A enter the environment. Per ATSDR, some individual components of the fuels will evaporate into the air from open containers or when they are spilled into water or soil. Essentially, the chemicals may be broken down by reacting with sunlight or other chemicals in the air. However, certain chemicals in may slowly move from the soil to the groundwater and subsequently attach to particles in the water and sink to the bottom sediment.
In some cases, the jet fuel chemicals will be broken down by bacteria and other organisms in soil and water, thereby preventing attachment to water particles and bottom sediment. Nevertheless, some chemicals in JP-5, JP-8, and Jet A may stay in the soil for more than a decade, posing serious environmental and health risks.
Veterans Exposed to Jet Fuel
Sadly, many veterans may have been exposed to jet fuel while serving on active duty. Exposure can occur in a number of ways, including the following:
- Working with such products
- Living very close to where the products are used or may have been spilled
- Breathing air in an area where an accident or leak has occurred
- Drinking water or touching soil contaminated with JP-5, JP-8, or Jet A
- Swimming in waters where spillage has occurred
- Working refueling military or civilian aircraft
- Transporting jet fuels (especially if protective clothing is not worn)
- Living near a hazardous waste site where these such products are disposed of
As such, veterans with military occupational specialties related to working on aircraft were likely at risk of coming into contact with jet fuel; however, other veterans may have come into contact as well due to its environmental presence. Please note that the list included above is non-exhaustive, meaning there are additional ways in which veterans may have been exposed that are not noted herein.
There is limited research to show that jet fuel was sometimes mixed with Agent Orange and various pesticides during the Vietnam-era, as well.
Health Effects Associated with Jet Fuel Exposure
According to VA, possible health effects of jet fuel exposure depend on how veterans were exposed (i.e., skin, oral, or breathing), length of time exposed, and personal factors (e.g., age, gender, genetic traits, diet). Unfortunately, little is known about the effects of JP-5, JP-8, and Jet A; however, results from several studies of military personnel suggest that exposure to jet fuel can affect the nervous system. Historically, observed effects include changes in reaction time and in other tests of neurological function.
Additional studies have been conducted with laboratory animals to explore the effects of exposure. Such studies found that exposure to high levels of jet fuel resulted in damage to the liver, decreased immune response, impaired performance on neurological tests, impaired hearing, and skin alterations. These findings are consistent with VA’s public health warnings regarding exposure. Specifically, VA’s reported health effects include:
- Irritation to unprotected skin
- Eye and upper respiratory irritation
- Breathing difficulty
- Sleep disturbances
- Hearing problems
- Lung and heart problems (if exposed to very high levels over a long period of time)
New VA research has shown that hearing problems are linked to jet fuel exposure. Dr. O’Neil Guthrie, a research scientist and clinical audiologist with the VA Loma Linda Healthcare System in California, states, “even at subtoxic levels, the exposure is affecting the brain and resulting in auditory processing dysfunctions.” Importantly, auditory processing dysfunctions are changes that occur inside the brain rather than the ear. This means that the issue does not involve typical deafness or inability to hear sound. Instead, the issue is that the brain cannot interpret the sound or decipher the message, making communication very difficult. There is currently no treatment for such auditory processing dysfunctions.
So far, several studies have examined the potential connection between exposure to jet fuel and various types of cancer. However, the studies did not provide conclusive results due to significant limitations. As of now, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency have not classified JP-5, JP-8, or Jet A fuels “as to their carcinogenicity” (i.e., tendency to produce cancer). On the other hand, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified these types as “Group 3 carcinogens” (i.e., not cancer-causing to humans).
VA Service Connection for Jet Fuel Exposure
Currently, there is no presumption of service connection related to jet fuel exposure. Therefore, veterans must establish service connection for conditions related to jet fuel exposure on a direct basis. This means that veterans will need to demonstrate the following:
- A current diagnosis of a qualifying medical condition;
- An in-service event (i.e., exposure); and
- A medical nexus linking the current, diagnosed condition to the in-service exposure
Here, the most important element of service connection will be the medical nexus. Veterans must obtain a positive medical nexus stating that their condition is “at least as likely as not” due to their in-service exposure to jet fuel. Veterans can submit additional evidence to support their claims, such as research, scientific studies, and medical literature pertaining to the effects of exposure described above.
Once service connection is established, VA will assign a disability rating based on the specific condition for which the veteran is claiming benefits.
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