In recent years, the military’s use of Agent Orange and other dangerous herbicides in Vietnam and the health hazards suffered by veterans who were exposed to the chemicals have become widely known. However, Agent Orange is just one potential source of military toxic exposure. There are many other toxic substances and hazards that can cause health problems for veterans years after service. One source of toxic exposure is burn pits. A burn pit is an area of a military base where waste is burned in an open-air environment. Military burn pits can vary in size; the largest pit the US military operated covered at least ten acres. Waste was thrown into the burn pits daily and hundreds of tons of waste burned per day. The utilization of burn pits was the easiest way to get rid of large amounts of waste in a timely fashion. Veterans who were deployed to Southwest Asia during the Gulf War, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Enduring Freedom were likely exposed to burn pits. Although this was the time period during which burn pits were utilized in high frequency, other military operations utilized burn pits when other sources of getting rid of waste were unavailable.
What do you burn in Burn Pits?
Almost anything and everything was burned in the burn pits. The types of waste placed in the burn pits included:
- Medical waste
- Human waste
- Metal/aluminum cans
- Munitions and other unexploded ordnance
- Petroleum and lubricant products
- Discarded food
- Batteries and appliances,
- Dead animals
- Human body parts
Burning such a variety of types of waste created large black clouds of smoke. Many of the objects burned included toxic components that were released in the smoke and air. Military burn pits were located throughout Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, as well as other countries in Southeast Asia and Africa. Throughout bases in these countries, burn pits were used to rid of waste.
In recent years, advocates have been pushing for research to be conducted on the long term effects associated with smoke inhalation from burn pits. The toxins in burn pit smoke may affect the skin, eyes, respiratory system, cardiovascular system, gastrointestinal tract, and other internal organs. Currently, the VA has stated that research does not show that there are long term health effects from burn pits.
Where are Burn Pits?
In April 2019, the Defenses Department acknowledged that exposure to burn pits can cause health issues in veterans. While burn pits are technically banned in combat zones, a base may be able to continue to utilize a burn pit if there is no other feasible way to get rid of waste. Since the April 2019 report, nine burn pits were still in operation: seven in Syria, one in Afghanistan, and one in Egypt.
While research continues to be conducted on the long term effects of burn pits, it is important for veterans to let their medical providers know of their exposure to burn pits. For more information about burn pits, please feel free to contact our office.