After the Burn Pit Registry opened in 2014, more than seventy thousand veterans have reported some form of respiratory illness or disease associated with airborne chemical exposure during service. Veterans that served in Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation New Dawn, Djibouti, Africa, Operations Desert Shield or Desert Storm or the Southeast Asia theater of operations after August, 1990 have been encouraged to register and report any respiratory symptoms and health conditions that may be related to exposure to burn pits.
The long-term health effects of exposure to burn pits and other airborne hazards are not fully understood. In an effort to further study and expand assistance to Veterans returning from the middle east, recently introduced legislation in the U.S. Senate calls for the VA to establish a center that would have ties to an emerging scientific field called medical geology. Medical geology studies the health impact of earth and earth materials like dust, soils and rocks on humans. These experts help physicians and scientist with complex issues ranging from illnesses and disease developed after natural disasters caused by wildfire ash, natural occurring poisons in water, and mine waste.
Burn pits were basically a hole in the ground. Some were small, but others were acres and acres in size, where they would bulldoze in tons of trash, up to eighty to ninety thousand pounds a day in some of the larger bases. This is where all waste was burned. Waste included anything from disposable food items from chow halls, batteries, tires, medical waste, to unusable uniforms.
Official count estimates that there were about 197 burn pits in Afghanistan in 2011, and a little more than 60 in Iraq in 2009, but there were hundreds and hundreds of them, some large and some small.
In-theater Veterans were having bad nosebleeds, deep cough, and unresolving respiratory infections. Veterans would call it the “Iraqi crud”.
Although burn pits have been identified as the worse single source, there were other pollutants in the air, depending on where the Veteran was stationed. Dust particles were said to blot out the sun. The so-called “moon dust” in parts of southern Afghanistan was different from the airborne grit in southern Iraq, or the smog, dust and fecal matter from open sewers in Kabul. The level of exposure also depended on the Veteran’s job. Outside the wire, there were areas of intense gunfire and it was extremely dangerous to leave camp. The burn pits were inside the camp. Nobody wanted to be the last Marine to die for taking out the garbage – so they disposed of the trash within their stations, in the burn pits.
The seventy thousand registered Veterans are only a small fraction of the estimated 3 million individuals who may be eligible to join the register. More Veterans need to register and begin treatment for their health complaints in order for scientists and experts to get a better sense of what the exposures were and to help doctors figure out the downstream effects of these conditions.
The bill in legislation calls for the VA to build a center headed by a team of medical geologist to help untangle the various toxins in the Veterans lungs. This center will force the VA to concentrate on identifying and treating the Veterans with these conditions, and support ongoing research.
Under current regulation, VA presumes certain chronic, unexplained symptoms existing six months or more are related to Gulf War service without regard to cause. However, these presumptive illnesses must have appeared during active duty in the SW Asia theater of military operations on or by December 31, 2016. With this expiration date looming over Veterans whose symptoms have not yet arisen and with still a lot of unknown science behind the effects of the multiple toxic exposures that these Veterans endured, it is feasible to hope that this date is extended and that newly discovered links to illness and disease associated with such exposure are added to the regulation.