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Burn Pits and Rare Cancers

By December 2, 2021VA Disability

Last month, President Biden ordered the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to examine possible links between exposure to burn pit smoke and the development of rare cancers in veterans who fought during the 1990s and after September 11, 2001. President Biden has given the VA ninety days to provide recommendations on whether links exist, and his hope is that if the evidence supports a connection, veterans who are suffering will be able to obtain disability compensation and health care quickly.

We previously examined the links between sinusitis, rhinitis, and asthma and exposure to toxic burn pit smoke, but the rare cancers involved here include salivary gland tumors, lung cancers, constrictive bronchiolitis, and squamous cell carcinoma in the larynx. President Biden hopes that these diseases will also be added to the VA’s presumptive list so that a diagnosis of one of the above is enough to prove it was caused by toxic burn pit smoke.

Some of the materials set on fire in the pits included medical waste, plastic, jet fuel, and garbage, all of which produce toxic smoke when they burn. Many veterans who returned from war in the Middle East soon became sick, and since these kinds of lung diseases, cancers, and respiratory problems rarely affect younger adults, it became apparent that toxic smoke from the pits likely had a role to play in their diagnoses.

Veterans who become ill may be entitled to disability benefits if their diseases make them unable to work. Unfortunately for veterans suffering from these conditions, the VA has long refused to award them benefits because it said there was not enough evidence to support their claims that their illnesses were caused by inhaling the toxic burn pit smoke.

President Biden also announced last month that the VA was setting up a call center in 2022 for veterans to ask questions about potential environmental exposures. The VA will also create a team of medical providers who specialized in health issues caused by environmental factors like burn pits. These providers will work with concerned veterans and their doctors to provide additional resources.

Lastly, the President asked Congress to pass legislation to extend the enhanced eligibility period for health care through the VA. Currently, veterans who served in Afghanistan or Iraq can receive VA health care for five years after they are discharged, regardless of whether they have a medical disability related to their years of service, but President Biden wishes to extend this period to ten years. Sometimes it takes a while before a problem develops, so an extension of this kind could go a long way toward ensuring that veterans have consistent access to safe and affordable health care.