Skip to main content
For Immediate Help: 800-544-9144

Burn Pits Definition

Military burn pits are large areas of land in which the military and its contractors incinerated all waste generated by military bases, including plastics, medical waste, rubber, human waste, and other materials.

Burn pits were a standard part of the U.S. military’s waste disposal protocol in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan in the post-9/11 era during Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom.  While the practice was effective in reducing large quantities of waste, burn pits emitted plumes of toxic smoke.  This was problematic since the smoke would spread away from the burn pits into nearby communities and military camps, particularly in the Middle East, where the desert wind carried the smoke for miles.

Many U.S. military veterans have suffered health problems as a result of burn pit exposure.  While most of the exposed veterans suffered from temporary ailments of the respiratory system, some evidence suggests a link between burn pit exposure and the long-term deterioration of lung health.

The Dangers of Burn Pits

Burn pits are dangerous due to the nature of the products being incinerated.  The process of igniting waste in an open-air pit produces more toxins than the process of burning waste in a controlled environment such as an incinerator, making the risks associated with burn pits even greater.

Items commonly incinerated in burn pits include:

  • Human waste
  • Medical waste
  • Plastics
  • Paint
  • Rubber
  • Wood
  • Aluminum cans
  • Rotten food
  • Petroleum
  • Lubricants
  • Toxic chemicals
  • Styrofoam
  • Ammunition
  • Unexploded ordnances

Exposure to burns pits has been associated with exposure to particulate matter and dioxins.  Particulate matter can be particularly harmful when it enters the bloodstream or the lungs and has been associated with chronic respiratory conditions.  Additionally, the main dioxin released by burn pits, called TCDD, was also one of the major toxins in Agent Orange.  TCDD has been linked to various cancers and other serious disabilities.

burn pits


What Was in the Smoke from Military Burn Pits?

Located in Iraq, Joint Base Balad was home to an immense burn pit that spanned over ten acres.  Air samples taken by the Department of Defense revealed that the air around the base contained particulate matter, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and toxic organic halogenated dioxins and furans.  These substances can cause several serious health conditions.

  • Particulate matter (PM), a complex blend of small particles and droplets of liquid, can enter the lungs by passing through the throat and nose while a person is breathing.  These particles can cause serious health effects involving the heart and lungs.
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) are a group of more than 100 chemicals formed by incomplete burning of organic substances such as gas and coal.  Seventeen different PAHs were found in the air samples tested at Joint Base Balad.
  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are chemicals that materials such as paints or disinfectants emit in the form of gasses.  These gasses can be easily inhaled by a person in the vicinity of an open-air burn pit.
  • Toxic Organic Halogenated Dioxins and Furansare a group of toxic chemicals known to cause many types of cancer, as well as damage to the immune and reproductive systems.  VA is aware of the damage dioxins can cause because of their use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.  2,3,7,8 TCDD, the most toxic dioxin on the planet, which also results from the production of Agent Orange, was present in the air at Joint Base Balad.

Health Problems Caused by Burn Pits

Burn pit exposure has been connected to numerous health conditions, including respiratory diseases, cancers, and more.  These conditions may present soon after exposure or take years to develop.  Common symptoms of exposure to smoke from military burn pits may include:

  • Coughing
  • Throat discomfort
  • Trouble breathing
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Leukemia
  • Pulmonary ailments

As of August 2022, the PACT Act added 23 conditions to VA’s presumptive list for military toxic exposure for “covered veterans.”  This means veterans suffering from certain conditions who served in eligible locations and time periods may qualify for VA disability benefits on a presumptive basis, making it significantly easier for burn pit exposure veterans to obtain service connection.

The bill defines covered veterans as the following:

  1. A veteran who, on or after August 2, 1990, performed active military, naval, air, or space service while assigned to a duty station in, including air space above:
    • Bahrain
    • Iraq
    • Kuwait
    • Oman
    • Qatar
    • Saudi Arabia
    • Somalia
    • United Arab Emirates
  1. A veteran who, on or after September 11, 2001, performed active military, naval, air, or space service, while assigned to a duty station, including the airspace above:
    • Afghanistan
    • Djibouti
    • Egypt
    • Jordan
    • Lebanon
    • Syria

For these eligible (i.e., covered) veterans, the presumptive list of health conditions will include:

  • Asthma diagnosed after service
  • Head cancer (of any type)
  • Neck cancer (of any type)
  • Respiratory cancer (of any type)
  • Gastrointestinal cancer (of any type)
  • Reproductive cancer (of any type)
  • Lymphoma cancer (of any type)
  • Lymphomatic cancer (of any type)
  • Kidney cancer
  • Brain cancer
  • Melanoma
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • COPD
  • Constrictive bronchiolitis or obliterative bronchiolitis
  • Emphysema
  • Granulomatous disease
  • Interstitial lung disease
  • Pleuritis
  • Pulmonary fibrosis
  • Sarcoidosis
  • Chronic sinusitis
  • Chronic rhinitis
  • Glioblastoma

The presumption also applies to surviving spouses of veterans seeking retroactive Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) benefits.

The PACT ACT Explained: Toxic Exposure Veterans' Benefits

The Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) continues to study the effects of burn pit exposure on public health and general well-being.  If you were exposed, you can aid the process by signing up for the VA’s Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry online.  This online database allows eligible veterans and service members to document their exposures and report health concerns, helping VA study how veterans have responded to burn pit exposure.

Eligible veterans may complete the burn pit registry questionnaire and an optional health evaluation at a VA medical facility.  This health evaluation is a free benefit for veterans, but it is not a Compensation & Pension (C&P) exam and is not required to receive VA benefits.

Additionally, VA notes that the evaluation will be used to guide further research into the effects of airborne hazards.  Veterans may save and submit notes from the evaluation, as well as their burn pit registry questionnaire, to support their claim.

Need Help Getting Benefits for Burn Pit Exposure?

The veteran lawyers at Chisholm Chisholm & Kilpatrick LTD may be able to help you receive VA disability benefits for the health conditions you have developed following burn pit exposure.  For a free case evaluation, call our office today at 800-544-9144.