Skip to main content
Adjust Font Size:
For Immediate Help: 800-544-9144
Glossary

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, limited evidence suggests there may be a link between burn pit exposure and the long-term deterioration of lung health.

Common Items Incinerated in Burn Pits:

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

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.

Exposure to burns pits has also 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.

The main dioxin released by burn pits is called TCDD and was also one of the major toxins in Agent Orange.  TCDD has been linked to various cancers and other serious disabilities.  While VA acknowledges Agent Orange exposure has been linked to health conditions and offers presumptive service connection for some health conditions related to exposure, VA does not extend presumptive service connection to military burn pit exposure.  Presumptive service connection means that VA acknowledges the link between exposure and certain health conditions and therefore the burden to prove the connection between the condition and the exposure is not on the veteran.

In many of the locations where the military used burn pits, the air quality was already poor.  The high level of allergens and pollutants in the air likely served to exacerbate the respiratory and lung problems caused by burn pit exposure.

What was in the smoke from Military Burn Pits?

Located in Iraq, Joint Base Balad was home to a 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 a number of 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 Furans are a group of toxic chemicals known to cause many types of cancer, as well as damage to the immune and reproductive systems.  VA is well aware of the damage dioxins can cause because of its 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

Breathing in smoke from a burn pit can cause a wide range of health problems.  Symptoms of exposure to smoke from military burn pits may include:

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

These symptoms may present soon after exposure or take years to develop.

Additionally, the below conditions can be linked to burn pit exposure:

  • Acute and subacute peripheral neuropathy
  • Acute Myeloid Leukemia
  • AL Amyloidosis
  • Allergic Rhinitis
  • Asthma
  • Autoimmune Disorders
  • Basal Cell Carcinoma
  • B-Cell Lymphoma
  • Bladder Cancer
  • Bone Cancer
  • Brain Cancer
  • Bronchial Problems
  • Bronchitis
  • Chronic B-Cell Leukemias
  • Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy (CIDP)
  • Chronic Lymphocytic Lymphoma
  • Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD)
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Constrictive Bronchiolitis
  • COPD (need to know if the Veteran did/does smokes, and for how long)
  • Diabetes Mellitus II
  • Epilepsy
  • Gall Bladder Condition
  • Glaucoma
  • Glioblastoma Multiform, and other brain cancers
  • Hashmimoto Syndrome (Thyroiditis)
  • Headaches and Migraines
  • Hodgkin’s Disease
  • Hodgkin's Lymphoma
  • Hydrocephalus
  • Hypertension
  • Intestinal Cancers
  • Ischemic Heart Disease (AKA Coronary Artery Disease)
  • Kidney Cancer
  • Leukemia
  • Lung Cancer, and other respiratory cancers such as cancer of the pharynx, larynx, etc.
  • Lung Condition
  • Lupus
  • Lymphoma
  • Lymphomas
  • Medulloblastoma
  • Multiple Myeloma
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Myelodysplasia
  • Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
  • Non-Ischemic Cardiomyopathy
  • Pancreatic Cancer
  • Papillary Thyroid Carcinoma
  • Parkinson’s Disease, Parkinson’s-like Syndromes, including Parkinsonism
  • Peripheral Vascular Disease
  • Poryphyria Cutanea Tarda
  • Prostate Cancer
  • Psoriasis
  • Psoriatic Arthritis
  • Pulmonary Condition
  • Pulmonary Embolism
  • Reactive Airway Syndrome
  • Renal Cancer
  • Renal Cell Carcinoma
  • Respiratory Condition
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • Scheuermann Syndrome
  • Sinusitis
  • Sjorgen Syndrome (chronic autoimmune disease affecting salivary glands and tear glands)
  • Sleep Disturbances
  • Small Cell Carcinoma
  • Soft Tissue Carcinoma
  • Soft Tissue Sarcomas
  • Spinal Nerve Issues
  • Stroke
  • Testicular Cancer
  • Thyroid Cancer
  • Tonsil Cancer
  • Trachea Cancer

This list, however, is not exhaustive.  If you have been diagnosed with a condition that is not on this list that you believe it linked to burn pit exposure, you could still be eligible for service-connected compensation.

Respiratory Issues, Lung Health, and Burn Pits

Exposure to the smoke from military burn pits may have short and long-term effects on respiratory health.  Research into this subject is ongoing to investigate this more specifically and with more conclusive findings.  So far, the results have been largely inconclusive. A 2011 report from the Institute of Medicine, IOM, studied veterans who were exposed to military burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan and found evidence of reduced lung function.  However, the report acknowledges that this evidence is limited in scope.

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.

For a Free VA Disability Consultation, Call 800-544-9144 Today

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.