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What Is Burn Pit Exposure?

Burning garbage

In any theater of war, dealing with trash is a chief concern. Failure to dispose of it on a regular and consistent schedule can lead to a range of health concerns, as well as a general lack of order and discipline necessary to maintain a safe and alert force.

There are several ways to deal with nonhazardous solid waste on the battlefield according to the US Army field manual. These include:

  • -Incinerators
  • -Burial
  • -Landfills
  • -Tactical burial
  • -Open-air Burns (Burn Pits)

Throughout America’s wars in the Middle East burn pits became an attractive option for waste disposal, as the environment itself made digging efforts difficult and fire control simple.

Unfortunately, leadership failed to recognize that modern waste includes a range of plastics, packing materials, electronic components, and other substances that have the potential to release a whole host of toxic aerial compounds. Reported items included chemicals, paints, medical and human waste, metal, munitions, petroleum products, lubricants, rubber, wood, and food waste.

Burn pits generally used jet fuel as the accelerant, creating billowing clouds of thick black smoke. Analysis of this smoke shows that it may include dioxins, particulates, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, hexachlorobenzene, and even the same basic compound found in Agent Orange used in the Vietnam War.

Starting in 2001, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan saw American forces employing burn pits at military bases in the following locations:

  • -Iraq
  • -Afghanistan
  • -Kuwait
  • -Saudi Arabia
  • -Bahrain
  • -Djibouti
  • -Gulf of Aden
  • -Gulf of Oman
  • -Oman
  • -Qatar
  • -United Arab Emirates
  • -Persian Gulf
  • -Arabian Sea
  • -Red Sea

By 2010, reports started coming out that burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan operated by the US and its contractors were allowing longer burn periods outside of recommendations. As active-duty personnel began complaining of respiratory difficulties and headaches, Veterans began filing disability claims citing respiratory symptoms allegedly derived from burn pits.

The convenience of the open burn pits had completely ignored the fact that temperatures were nowhere near high enough to deal with the vast majority of the harmful elements in the waste. Even the most basic incinerator would have been held to higher standards, which is arguably another reason they were dismissed in favor of a methodology already understood to be inherently dangerous.

The smell of burning plastic or metal on an aircraft or submarine would be cause for immediate alarm, and here it was used to confirm that the trash was being taken care of.

At the time, the commander of US Central Command and Multi-National Force-Iraq, David Patraeus, dismissed concerns about burn pits.  He clarified that his priorities were the basic needs of soldiers, like food and water.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction later found burn pits to be indefensible, due to their active threat to the United States’ own service members.

U.S. Bases and Forces in the Middle East

Symptoms of Exposure to Burn Pits

For any Veteran seeking disability benefits as a result of exposure to burn pits, the symptoms experienced will be different in ways big and small. There’s also the issue of whether a condition/set of symptoms is currently recognized by the US government.

The following symptoms and conditions have been reported by active-duty and Veteran service-members as a consequence of their exposure to burn pits:

  • -Irritation of nose, eyes, and throat, headaches, nausea, and difficulty breathing (immediate effects)
  • -Emphysema
  • -Chronic Bronchitis
  • -Asthma
  • -High blood pressure
  • -Allergies
  • -Low birth weight
  • -Preterm delivery
  • -Increased risk of birth defects
  • -Reduction in sperm quality
  • -Autoimmune Disorders
  • -Cancer
  • -Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

US Government Response: Early Days

Perhaps ironically, the fight for victim compensation began at home, with the chief cause of all the subsequent toxic exposures in the US military: The 9/11 attacks in New York.

The World Trade Center fell on September 11, 2001, and in the days and weeks and months that followed, first responders of all types faced the kinds of toxic exposures from incidental burn pits that would plague soldiers in the decades to follow.

The health of these first responders would deteriorate at pace with the care and attention once lavished on them. The impact was not seen in soldiers first, but in civilian caretakers. Police and firefighters were the first of these long-term casualties, and despite broad community support that the US Army would kill for, they still had difficulty getting politicians to take the situation seriously. Ultimately, a Cable comedy personality had to go to Washington to fight on behalf of those who had already died fighting. Even he could only move the Google rankings for the keywords, he couldn’t enact meaningful legislation himself.

By 2009, the evidence had mounted. President Barack Obama directed federal agencies to evaluate recent scientific findings as they related to burn pits, and their potential danger to US military personnel. After all, “keeping our soldiers safe whether they’re being attacked or not” is fairly foundational to the entire idea of any standing army, ever.

There already weren’t sufficient funds for body armor, so the idea of soldiers being poisoned back at base by their own procedures was troubling to say the absolute least.

An 18-month study was begun in November of 2009 by the Veterans Administration and the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine, as part of a joint effort to determine the long-term health effects of exposure to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2011, the Institute of Medicine released a report detailing contaminants well above federal guidelines, and the increasingly obvious notion that the reported health effects could potentially be related, and if that evidence were established it should be used for congressional action. The key phrase, first established with Agent Orange in Vietnam, was “presumption of service connection.”  Essentially, if your condition is covered by the presumption of service connection, any and all disability benefits *should* be covered, and in an expedited manner.


Expanding Research and the Veterans Affairs Registry

Faced with a threat to its service members past and present, the VA launched the “Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry” in 2014. In its first 8 months of operation, nearly 30,000 veterans and service members logged in to provide information about their possible exposures and health concerns.

By June 2015, a report was compiled that found support for several lingering heart and lung problems, as well as insomnia and neurological problems.

The Registry itself cannot actually provide necessary evidence linking these conditions to burn pits, dust storms, or other hazards. However, with over 185,000 questionnaires filed by December 31, 2019, the raw data has already directed other efforts to isolate and confirm the health impact of burn pits generally.

These efforts have continued, despite sometimes flawed methodology and a whole cluster of concerns related to the management and handling of medical files and patient confidentiality within the VA itself. Studies that could provide more conclusive links have been hampered by limits on the amount of data that is made available for research purposes.

After years of steadily expanding budgets, the most recent proposal for fiscal 2022 sees the VA getting $900 million for medical and prosthetic research, very much including further evaluations of burn pits and burn pit diseases.

At the start of August, 2021, and amid increasing calls for action from health care advocates and congress, the VA announced plans to consider adding presumption of service connections to respiratory illnesses caused by exposure to burn pits in a range of overseas combat locations.

The fine print saw this move address those suffering from asthma, rhinitis, and sinusitis only. And only then if the condition manifested within 10 years of the relevant overseas deployment.

Excluded were the rare cancers that veterans and their advocates have pointed to for their high casualties in the years after service. Mirroring the experience with first responders, the strongest voices were also fighting just to stay alive long enough to get the message out.

As of 2021, that message has been muted in favor of more obvious, direct, long-term consequences.

Those vets suffering from the covered illnesses should be fast-tracked to the benefits they’re owed, but as of this publishing, the procedure for processing those claims was still being worked out. At the very least, every member should be contributing to the Open Burn Pit Registry, as it’s one of the more visible and compelling sources of evidence.

The scientific side will always need more funding to try to draw meaningful conclusions from this data, and the politicians will always wait for those conclusions before they commit to a course of action…

Unfortunately, research funding is the proper course of action here regardless of the outcome, and getting politicians to make those moves absent immediate and obvious benefit is proving difficult.

Soldiers are being left behind, and their families are being left with medical costs.

The Future

Advocacy groups have referred to burn pits as “the Agent Orange of our time,” and it’s easy to see why, not even including the actual Agent Orange ingredients found in some of these fires.

Although the US military has since changed its procedures for dealing with trash, implicitly acknowledging the clear and present danger to servicemembers, there are still roughly 2-3 decades worth of exposures across several generations of recruits.

And unlike the accidental exposures to a known, weaponized compound, these exposures were the result of winding up on trash duty, or being anywhere downwind from the people on trash duty…or being around an environment covered in toxic particulates from the trash…

Point being, the initial exposure event was blended into daily life on these bases, and the tragedy has been all the more slow and mundane as it spread out among the Veteran population like a cancer, often in the form of actual cancer.

It’s impossible to find a smoking gun, because the smoking crater contained so many things that should not have been burned in an open-air pit, including literal smoking guns in the form of munitions.

Thankfully, many of our heroes at home and abroad signed up for one final tour to try and tell everyone the dangers they actually faced. Long after the fires burned out and long after the bullets stopped flying, these men and women were getting attacked by their own bodies because of what we exposed them to.

Culpability is difficult here.

No one approved the debris of 9/11 for combustion, and no one signed special hazardous material release forms before rushing to the scene to try to be of service. It was difficult to convince politicians that they had a responsibility to those people, despite not being responsible for their plight.

Burn pits in the military truly can’t get the same latitude.

The number of affected servicemembers alone should emphasize the importance of addressing the problem as fully as possible.

Further, the access to federal emissions standards and guidelines and basic understanding of toxicity related to combustion clearly paint the military brass as people emphasizing convenience over every single other risk plainly apparent in the deployment of open-air burn pits.

The use of open-air burn pits by the US military constituted a genuine abandonment of their responsibilities to the safety of their soldiers. Their priorities were askew, and they arrogantly dismissed very real concerns in favor of a cheap and easy solution.

Veteran suicide rates are at an all-time high, and with the slightest amount of research, it would probably be easy to credit burn pits with some of those numbers. That’s how comprehensively bad this practice was for human beings. The impact has been felt all over, and it has not gotten a fraction of the credit it deserves because we need brand-new science to even find it.

If you are a Veteran or a family-member/loved one, please pursue every benefit you feel you’re entitled to. Collect every bit of paperwork a doctor can give you, and find the most reasonable disability lawyer you can.

Even if your own case takes too long, or falls apart, this is the final battle for everyone left behind.