Burn Pits and the VA

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) established a burn pit registry in June 2014 and invited veterans and service members to enroll. What is a burn pit and why should vets participate? Do veterans benefit from this program? Who is eligible? This article provides some answers.

Burn Pit Information: A Summary

Burn pits are open-air trash dumps where waste is burned. They were used especially in Iraq and Afghanistan by the military and by contractors such as KBR. The pits contained all types of trash, including plastics and plastic foam, batteries, appliances, paint, metal cans, munitions and unexploded ordinance, medicine and medical waste, rubber, used vehicles, wood, dead animals, and human body parts. The fuel used to ignite the burn pits was high-octane jet fuel. The use of burn pits began to decline in 2008, but isolated instances of their use continued.

What Was the Result of Burning Trash in Burn Pits?

According to the Air Force, burning waste in this way can generate significant amounts of small and large airborne particulates and smoke. Particulates can include dioxins, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, hexachlorobenzene and ash. The level of airborne dioxin, a known carcinogen, escalates when the temperature at which the materials are burned is not high enough. Additionally, combustion of medical waste at lower temperatures can result in airborne bacteria and viruses that can cause disease.

Where Were the Burn Pits Located?

Large burn pits operated in installations such as:

  • Bagram Airfield (Afghanistan)
  • Kandahar (Afghanistan)
  • Camp Bastion Airfield (Afghanistan)
  • Joint Base Balad (Iraq)
  • Baghdad International Airport (Iraq)
  • Camp Cropper (Iraq)
  • Camp Stryker (Iraq)
  • Tallil Air Base (Iraq)

One nonmilitary website reported almost 75 locations where burn pits were used. It turns out that even after the United States switched to high-temperature incinerators that generated much less smoke and particulate matter, the Afghan military continued to use burn pits because it didn't want to spend money on fuel to power the U.S.-provided incinerators. Although there are fewer troops in Afghanistan today, those who are still there are vulnerable to the consequences of breathing smoke and particulates.

What Happens to Veterans Who Were Near Burn Pits?

Veterans who were exposed to smoke from burn pits have reported symptoms that include problems with their skin, eyes, respiratory and cardiovascular systems, gastrointestinal tract, and internal organs. Many of the veterans who have signed up for the registry so far have ongoing bronchitis and other lung diseases. Others have developed chronic headaches.

Exposed veterans and service members have reported breathing problems so severe that they could not pass a military physical. Others have developed constrictive bronchiolitis, a rare condition that results from exposure to toxins. One researcher at Stony Brook School of Medicine in New York attributes a higher than normal rate of asthma among veterans and service members to dust particles imbedded in the lungs.

In April 2014, the Department of Defense said that the number of soldiers and veterans reporting breathing problems and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (usually reported by smokers over age 40) increased significantly, from 98 per 10,000 in 2001 to 147 per 10,000 in 2013. The highest year was 2009, with 218 per 10,000. Another study found that the number of veterans and soldiers complaining of respiratory and chest problems grew from a rate of 406 per 10,000 in 2001 to 744 per 10,000 in 2013.

How Did the VA Respond to the Problem?

The problem first came to light in a 2008 article written by an Air Force officer stationed in Afghanistan. However, the military was slow to respond. In fact, one Navy officer who served in Afghanistan has sued because she believes she was wrongly discharged as a result of her complaints about burn pits in 2009.

As the evidence grew, a 2011 Institute of Medicine study, "Long-Term Health Consequences of Exposure to Burn Pits in Iraq and Afghanistan," reported that the connection between burn pit exposure and health problems was not clear. However, it did confirm that service in Afghanistan, Iraq, Djibouti and places in Southeast Asia exposed service members to very high levels of airborne particulates, either natural or man-made, and that those particulates could result in increased rates of illness. Despite this, the link between exposure and illnesses reported by military personnel and veterans was not confirmed by the institute's 2011 report. The report suggested instead that inhaled sand and dust in the desert environment may have been more dangerous than the aerosol chemical stew created by burn pits.

Congress Gets Involved: the Burn Pit Registry

Members of Congress, spurred on by complaints from soldiers, veterans and medical researchers, passed legislation in 2012 that established the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry. The law took effect in June 2014, and by the end of the first week in July, 11,000 had enrolled. The purpose of the registry is to allow veterans and service members to document exposure to environmental hazards, including burn pits, and to report health problems they believe resulted from that exposure.

Who Is Eligible for the Burn Pit Registry?

According to the VA website, the registry is open to veterans and service members who served in:

  • Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation New Dawn
  • Djibouti, Africa on or after Sept. 11, 2001
  • Operations Desert Shield or Desert Storm
  • Southwest Asia theater of operations on or after Aug. 2, 1990

Veterans and service members who enroll complete a health and history questionnaire that takes about 40 minutes. The information gathered will allow the VA to determine the long-term impact of deployment in areas where environmental hazards such as burn pits were present.

Registration is voluntary and the VA emphasizes that participation will not affect a veteran's eligibility for health, disability and other benefits.

Can Vets Exposed to Burn Pits Get Disability Benefits?

Veterans whose illness or condition can be traced to their exposure to burn pits while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan are eligible to file for veterans disability benefits. Unlike veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, these more recent veterans must demonstrate that their illness was directly linked to burn pit exposure. An advocate or claims agent may be able to provide more information about eligibility for VA disability benefits.