What are Burn Pits?
Burn pits are open-air, uncontrolled areas used by the military and military contractors, primarily in Iraq and Afghanistan. Historically, burn pits have been a means to dispose of metal, rubber, chemicals, paint, medical waste, munitions and unexploded ordnance, petroleum products, human waste, plastics, and various other forms of waste. When these different forms of waste are burned together, the burn pit emits toxic substances and carcinogens. Without containment, the airborne pollutants and carcinogens spread and can lead to long-term medical conditions. The high levels of dust and other existing air pollutants in the area further compound the effects of burn pits.
Burn Pit Exposure Symptoms & Health Effects
With the various amounts and types of waste burned, the smoke released may be made up of any number of chemicals. As a result, it is difficult to quantify exposure. Burn pit exposure affects each individual differently and may affect those exposed for long periods of time or with pre-existing asthma, lung, or heart conditions more severely. Symptoms and long-term effects from exposure also depend on the proximity to the burn pit, direction of the smoke, along with the length and frequency of exposure.
The toxins and smoke emitted from burn pits may affect the skin, eyes, respiratory system, cardiovascular system, and gastrointestinal tract. Initial exposure symptoms often include eye irritation and/or burning; coughing and throat irritation; difficulty breathing; skin itching; and rashes. These exposure symptoms often appear temporary and resolve following initial exposure. However, burn pit exposure has caused long-term health effects as well. Some of these long-term effects include, but are not limited to:
- Reduced central nervous system function;
- Reduced liver or kidney function;
- Stomach, respiratory, or skin cancer;
- Skin lesions;
- Chronic bronchitis;
- Cardiovascular conditions;
- Constrictive bronchiolitis;
- Autoimmune disorders;
- Crohn’s disease;
- Throat infections;
- Eczema; and
- Multiple sclerosis.
What to Do If You Were Exposed to Burn Pit Smoke
If you have noticed health problems following burn pit exposure, it is important to make your treating physician aware of your exposure so that your symptoms and any diagnosed medical conditions may be documented. In addition, the VA has set up a Burn Pit Registry for military members who served in Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation New Dawn; Djibouti, Africa, on or after September 11, 2001; Operations Desert Shield or Desert Storm; or Southwest Asia on or after August 2, 1990.
Military service members may check their eligibility prior to enrollment in the Burn Pit Registry and there are no costs to participate. Part of the registry involves a free health examination with a VA provider after you have completed the requisite questionnaire. Even if you do not have any health problems, you may still enroll in the registry. Participation in the registry helps contribute to the ongoing research pertaining to airborne hazards from burn pits and their effects on health. Enrollment in the Burn Pit Registry will not affect any VA disability benefits claims as it is completely voluntary.
If pursuing a VA disability compensation claim for a medical condition caused by burn pit exposure, evidence will need to be presented for direct service connection. Direct service connection for burn pit exposure will require a current diagnosis of the claimed condition; evidence of burn pit exposure; and a nexus between the exposure and any resulting medical condition(s). Supplemental evidence to establish exposure may include your service area, medical professional consultations, and scientific literature providing the necessary nexus between burn pit exposure and your medical condition. While the evidence will not be considered binding on the VA to automatically award benefits, proper documentation is necessary for a successful claim given that the VA does not recognize any presumptive medical conditions for burn pit exposure at this time. However, this could change as the VA gathers more data on the health effects of burn pits and legislation continues to be introduced, as mentioned in the following section.
In November 2019, Senate Bill S.2950 was introduced. The bill’s short title is the Veterans Burn Pits Exposure Recognition Act of 2019. The purpose of the bill is to amend the United States Code “to concede exposure to airborne hazards and toxins from burn pits under certain circumstances, and for other purposes.” If passed, it could provide further support for VA claims involving burn pit exposure.
The National Defense Authorization Act also contains provisions aimed at the use of burn pits. It would require a plan to close remaining burn pits in use and provide a historic, comprehensive list of burn pit-use sites to the Department of Veterans Affairs. These provisions would help the VA recognize burn pits and resulting health effects from exposure.
In addition, the Veterans Right to Breathe Act would designate illnesses to be presumed to be related to burn pit exposure. The proposed list of presumptive conditions include asthma, chronic bronchitis, COPD, constrictive bronchiolitis, emphysema, granulomatous disease, interstitial lung disease, lung cancer, and pneumonia. This would change the need to prove the direct service connection requirements discussed above if diagnosed with one of the listed conditions.
Environmental Effects of Burn Pits
Because of the significant environmental exposures open burning can lead to, an Army Technical Bulletin on Guidelines for Field Waste Management has suggested for it to only be used in emergency situations. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognizes the harmful effects of burn pits and even outdoor fireplaces. In its discussion of recreational fires, the EPA warns that such fires can become a considerable source of fine-particle air pollution, affecting air quality. Particle pollution is a mixture of microscopic solids and liquid droplets suspended in air. This type of pollution is also known as particulate matter. The EPA has identified health problems associated with particle pollution to include: irritation of the airways, coughing, difficulty breathing, decreased lung function, aggravated asthma, chronic bronchitis, irregular heartbeat, nonfatal heart attacks, and premature death in people with existing heart or lung disease.
Air pollution in Afghanistan and Iraq is generally high with higher levels of particulate matter than in the United States. Particulate matter is made up of acids, organic chemicals, metals, soil particles, dust particles, and allergens. The Department of Defense has identified open pit burning as a source of particulate matter pollution. In the United States, such pollution is regulated under federal laws. However, environmental laws like the Clean Air Act generally do not apply overseas.
Because environmental laws in the United States do not have extraterritorial application, the Overseas Environmental Baseline Guidance Document creates baseline environmental standards incorporating requirements of United States law. Furthermore, the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) developed policies and procedures to guide waste management, including minimum requirements for operating and monitoring burn pits. A CENTOM regulation promulgated in 2009 now prohibits many items routinely disposed of in burn pits: substantial quantities of plastic, hazardous waste, and regulated medical waste. But, there have been findings that some burn pits lack compliance with the regulation. As a result, the dangers of burn pits continue, substantiating the importance of further study of long-term health effects from exposure.