What are burn pits and why do they continue to raise concern for veterans of military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere?
The Department of Veterans Affairs summarizes U.S. burn pit operations on its official site as being “a common way to get rid of waste at military sites in Iraq and Afghanistan.” That waste has included equipment, munitions, medical waste, food, petroleum and more.
But burn pits create toxic airborne hazards, and some of those who have been exposed to burn pits as a result of military service began reporting medical issues that seem to be related to burn pit exposure. As more veterans began reporting symptoms, the Department of Veterans Affairs looked into the issue.
In 2021, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced important changes to the Burn Pit Registry program as a result; a VA “final rule” amends its guidelines for presumptive conditions associated with certain types of military service in the Gulf War and elsewhere.
The final rule presumes that three conditions, when associated with military service near burn pit areas (see below), may be presumed by VA evaluators to have been caused as a result of that service. The VA presumes that troops serving in areas listed below who report specific symptoms (also see below) do so as a result of burn pit exposure.
Burn Pit Exposure
Veterans who served in areas where burn pit operations were carried out may report symptoms of three conditions now presumed to have been caused by that service, where applicable. Those conditions are:
- Sinusitis, (including rhinosinusitis “in association with presumed exposures to fine, particulate matter”)
VA presumptions in this area “would apply to veterans with a qualifying period of service Southwest Asia theater during the Persian Gulf War, and also in Afghanistan, Syria, Djibouti, or Uzbekistan on or after September 19, 2001” according to the VA official site.
What does the VA’s “presumptive conditions” rule here mean? Basically that those who show symptoms within 10 years of retirement or separation from the military would be required to file a claim for these medical issues.
The VA assumes that when military service was performed in an affected area (see above) and the above symptoms are present that the condition is definitely associated with that military service.
That presumption relieves the veteran from having to provide extensive documentation; it basically expedites the claim and speeds up the process.
One concern in this area is that such claims could be made for some time–there has never been a declared end to the Gulf War era of military service and in 2021 there was still an American military presence of some kind in many of the areas listed in this article as being potential burn pit exposure risks.
If you have questions about whether your military service and/or your symptoms qualify, contact a VA office near you to discuss your concerns and next steps.
Burn Pit Operations By The United States Military
Burn pits were–and still are–used by the Department of Defense, according to an April 2019 DoD report titled Open Burn Pit Report To Congress, by the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment.
According to this report, the purpose of burn pits include disposal of solid waste, ammunition, equipment, food remnants, and other debris for operations considered “downrange.”
Burn pits are, on paper, meant to be limited to “short term contingency operations outside of the United States where no feasible alternative exists.” DoD Instruction 4715.19, Use of Open Air Burn Pits in Contingency Operations, states that burn pit operations should not include “disposal of hazardous waste, medical waste, tires or plastics in open burn pits” that can “emit harmful smoke or fumes.” However, this is not a blanket prohibition; the Combatant Commander in the area of operations is permitted to do so if there is no other alternative.
The report notes a move to phase out burn pits altogether due to health and/or environmental concerns, but at press time, the pits are still authorized as described above.
The DoD Position On Burn Pits
The Open Burn Pit Report To Congress concludes with a statement reinforcing the DoD commitment to the health and safety of troops deployed to areas that may require the use of burn pits.
“The health and safety of our men and women in uniform is our utmost priority. The DoD prohibits the use of open burn pits for disposal of waste in contingency locations unless there is no feasible alternative,” concluding with a note that as of March 2019, “there are currently 9 U.S operated or contracted open-burn pit operations occurring at DoD contingency locations. No location identified had more than 500 personnel assigned.”
This means burn pit issues may continue to be a source of medical concern for those exposed to them–those who have been exposed to such operations should definitely explore their options for VA compensation. Why?
What The VA Says About Burn Pit Exposure
According to the official site, burn pit operations can release toxic smoke that “may affect the skin, eyes, respiratory and cardiovascular systems, gastrointestinal tract and internal organs.”
Those with more exposure carry greater risk of health complications, and while VA literature claims “Most of the irritation is temporary and resolves once exposure is gone,” there are still studies being conducted to examine possible long-term health consequences of exposure to this toxic smoke.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has pledged to review such claims on a case-by-case basis even though the official site has gone on record stating, “At this time, research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits. VA continues to study the health of deployed Veterans.”
That may sound like a denial of responsibility to some, but the VA remains committed to tracking, studying, and understanding the possible long-term effects of such exposure.
The VA Burn Pit Registry
The Department of Veterans Affairs operates something known as the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry; this is intended for eligible troops and veterans “to document their exposures and report health concerns” using an online Q&A tool.
Burn pits were a common way to get rid of waste at military sites in Iraq and Afghanistan. At this time, research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits. VA continues to study the health of deployed Veterans.
Who is eligible to participate? Those who meet any of the following service location/deployment criteria:
- Operation Enduring Freedom
- Operation Iraqi Freedom
- Operation New Dawn
- Djibouti, Africa on or after September 11, 2001
- Operation Desert Shield
- Operation Desert Storm
- Those stationed in Southwest Asia on or after August 2, 1990
If you qualify for and participate in the registry, the VA urges you to schedule a free examination with a VA care provider after completing the Burn Pit questionnaire.
You are not required to be enrolled in the VA health care system to participate, the system is free to use, and your answers to the Q&A should be based on your memory of military service (the VA says this is preferred over using your military records).
Family members are not eligible to participate, and participation in the Burn Pit Registry is NOT required in order to receive other VA benefits or services.
VA Research Findings
The Department of Veterans Affairs published a document titled Airborne Hazards Concerns which includes the following findings about general post-deployment health issues. They include:
- Post-deployment respiratory symptoms “are common”
- Seven out of eight studies show a “relationship between deployment and respiratory symptoms”
- Four studies “show a relationship between asthma and deployment”
- Five studies show “no relationship between asthma and deployment”
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) does not appear to be related to deployment
- 2 studies show a relationship between COPD and deployment, but 5 studies found no relationship
If you were exposed to burn pit smoke, you can talk to your primary care provider, but you can also contact your nearest VA Environmental Health Coordinator for more information.
Veterans with health problems they believe are burn-pit related may apply for VA disability compensation.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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