Throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, burn pits as large as 20 acres located at military forward operating bases have been used to dispose of all forms of waste. Plastics, cans, rubber, chemicals, ammunition, batteries, animal waste, and human waste were burned in these open pits for 24 hours each day.
Veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are growing increasingly concerned that exposure to toxins produced by burn pits will mirror the problems that resulted from Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam. Researchers are continuously uncovering new evidence that suggests there is a connection between burn pit exposure and a number of severe illnesses. However, the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) has been slow to acknowledge the connection between the two.
Burn Pit Legislation
Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits (2018)
In 2018, Congress passed the Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act. This was the second piece of legislation to help veterans suffering from the effects of burn pit exposure. However, it’s the first piece of legislation to possibly provide answers on which conditions are caused by burn pit exposure. The bill directed the VA to establish a center of excellence in the prevention, diagnosis, mitigation, treatment, and rehabilitation of health conditions relating to exposure to burn pits and other environmental exposures in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Most importantly, the law requires the VA to create a center to research the effects of burn pit exposure. The center must also develop and test treatments for the health conditions that arise as a result of exposure and study both short-term and long-term effects. Additionally, the act provides $4.1 million in funding for research for five years and enables the VA Secretary to provide additional funding should it become necessary.
The VA formed the Airborne Hazards and Burn Pits Center of Excellence (AHBPCE), which specializes in research on burn pit exposure and airborne hazards. The AHBPCE also manages and monitors an online registry where veterans can document their exposures and report health concerns. The online platform had more than 200,000 registrants as of April 2020. However, the VA claims it still does not know enough about the hazards of burn pit toxins exposure to grant a service connection for many conditions veterans suffer from.
2020 National Defense Authorization Act
The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act requires the Pentagon to identify all present and historic burn pits to make it easier for veterans to claim a service-related disability. It also instructs the Pentagon to draft a plan to get rid of all active burn pits. The legislation does not provide a timeline for the closing of burn pits right now, however more and more locations are being reported.
Burn Pit VA Disability Rating
Veteran benefits are granted on a case-by-case basis depending on a resulting disability, rather than the exposure itself. While burn pits are known to have immediate health effects, research at this time does not demonstrate the evidence of long-term health problems caused by exposure to burn pits. A group of lawmakers led by Democrat Rep. Raul Ruiz is proposing legislation that would make medical care and disability benefits more accessible to veterans with proven burn pit exposure by placing them in priority group 6.
Burn Pit Compensation
From 2007 to 2018, the VA processed 11,581 disability compensation claims related to burn pits. Of those, only 2,318 claims were granted. About 44% of the claims associated with burn pit exposure were denied because the aliment had not been officially diagnosed, while 54% were denied due to a lack of evidence in linking the condition to military service.
Researchers have found connections between burn pit exposure and higher incidence of post-deployment respiratory and cardiovascular conditions. A court ruling in 2018 decreed that open-air burn pits incinerated at American military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan are connected to lung disease. Many veterans, families and researchers suspect that terminal brain cancer and other rare cancers may be the result of burn pit emissions exposure.
Officials believe that over 3.5 million soldiers were exposed to burn pit smoke, but only 9,000 veterans have applied for disability benefits. Tom Porter, the legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, stated, “Year after year, we have seen an upward trend in the number of our members reporting symptoms associated with burn pit exposure.” Amplifying research will help us better understand the effects of burn pit exposure and support those veterans suffering.
If you or someone you know is suffering from the effects of burn pit exposure, apply for assistance and VA disability benefits. Seek medical treatment for your conditions, either through the VA or a private physician. In addition, be sure to put your name on the national Burn Pit Registry to advance burn pit exposure research.