Burn Pits: The Post 9/11 Generation’s Agent Orange?
Other than our veterans, few Americans know about them, but the lasting effects that the smoldering trash-heaps known as “burn pits” will have on our modern warriors will likely extend far beyond the putrid stench that is permanently ingrained in their uniforms, protective gear, and memories. If you are an Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) or Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) veteran, then chances are very high that you were exposed to a burn pit. Exposure to a burn pit for any amount of time may have had not only short-term, but also long-term impact on your health. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) notes that toxins in burn pit smoke can affect the skin, eyes, respiratory and cardiovascular systems, gastrointestinal tract and internal organs. This article describes how Burn Pits impact the health of OIF/OEF veterans and how veterans may be entitled to service-connected disability compensation if the exposure resulted in a disease or injury.
What is a “Burn Pit”?
This answer may seem obvious to Marines, Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, or the Horn of Africa. Simply put, burn pits are large holes in the ground that are used to dispose of and destroy virtually every type of waste imaginable with fire in an open air environment. It is estimated that every single base (be it a FOB, FARP, Camp, or Observation Post) in the previously mentioned areas of operation use burn pits to dispose of the thousands of pounds of waste produced every day.
With Jet fuel (JP-8) as the accelerant, service members burn plastics, metal/aluminum cans, rubber, chemicals (paints, solvents), petroleum and lubricant products, lithium batteries, munitions and other unexploded ordnance, wood waste, medical and human waste, and incomplete combustion by-products. With very few exceptions, if it is thrown away, it is burned.
Burn pits range drastically in size (some as large as 20 meters) according to the specific waste disposal needs of each base. However, the pits do not effectively burn the volume of waste generated, and smoke from the burn pit blows over bases and into living areas where troops breathe in toxins, absorb them through their skin, and ingest them with their food. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recognizes this, even including it in their operations manual, the M-21-a (see M21-1, Part IV, Subpart ii, Chapter 1, Section I, Sub-Section 9a).
The billowing towers of toxic smoke can most closely be likened to the proscribed burn clouds seen stateside to control forest growth. One is often able to smell/ taste the smoke from controlled burns long before they are able to see them. Such is often the case for our deployed troops. Obviously, inhaling smoke is never good for your health, but the smoke only makes up a small portion of the threat that burn pits pose to troops. In fact, some troops may deploy for several months and not physically see a burn pit but, they are still affected by the polluted air. The real damage is caused by chemical compounds called “Particulate Matter” that remain in the air even after the burn pit fires have gone out.
What is “Particulate Matter” and how does it affect you?
“Particulate Matter” (PM), is a combination of small particles and liquid droplets made up of a number of components, including acids (such as nitrates and sulfates), organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles that remain in the air after the waste is burned in a pit. Elevated levels of PM can also be found in the Middle East due to the prevalence of sandstorms and pollution from local industries. PM is measured in microns which are equal to 1 millionth of a meter. The sizes of particles that the Department of Defense (DoD) links to having the potential to cause health problems are 10-microns in diameter or smaller and 2.5 microns or smaller.
These tiny particles can cause serious damage to the heart and lungs when inhaled, to the skin when absorbed, and to the internal organ systems when ingested with exposed food. According to a VA Fact Sheet based on the DoD’s year-long sampling survey of Joint Base Balad’s air quality, emissions from burns pits, among other things, “may increase localized concentration of 2.5 micrometer PM and other potentially toxic air pollutants.” (see M21-1, Part IV, Subpart ii, 2.C.5.a). In its 2008 sample study of Balad, the DoD found that:
22 of the chemical compounds discovered “affect the respiratory system; 20 affect the skin; at least 12 affect the eyes; and others affect the liver, kidneys, central nervous system, cardiovascular system, reproductive system, peripheral nervous system, and GI tract. In at least seven, dermal exposure can greatly contribute to overall dosage.
In its M21-1 manual, the VA encourages their examiners to consider the combined effect of these toxins on the body, through inhalation, dermal exposure, and through ingestion when looking at a veteran’s total potential exposure.
How to win a VA service-connected compensation claim for “Burn Pit” exposure:
On VA’s website, Particulate Material and Burn Pit exposure are listed under the VA’s “Specific Environmental Hazards.” This means that service members who were exposed to burn pits and particulate matter may be entitled to disability compensation if exposure resulted in a disease or injury. With that said, if a veteran has lung, skin, or other conditions they believe are related to burn pit exposure, they will need to submit sufficient evidence to prove each of the three required components of service connection to win their claim for service-connected compensation.
Service-Connection – You must prove 3 key things:
To establish a claim for service connection, you must generally provide medical or, in certain circumstances, lay evidence of each of the following:
- a current disability – meaning some current medical condition that impacts you;
- an in-service event or aggravation of a disease or injury; and
- a nexus – or connection – between the claimed in-service disease or injury and the present disability. In most cases, a physician’s opinion explaining the nexus is required.
Many cases from the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims explain this, but see Davidson v. Shinseki, 581 F.3d 1313 (Fed.Cir.2009), and Hickson v. West, 12 Vet. App. 247, 253 (1999), to good explanations of service-connection.
- You must be a Veteran who was discharged under conditions other than dishonorable.
- You must have a disability due to your exposure to an environmental hazard during military service.
- You must have been exposed to an environmental hazard during military service.
- The evidence must show you have a disability, or at least a symptom, or cluster of symptoms, due to exposure to any specific environmental hazard. Exposure in and of itself is not a disability.
- The evidence must show you participated in or were affected by an in-service exposure event. VA will obtain your service records, to include your Post-Deployment Health Assessment and Discharge Examination for exposure information.
In the absence of military records that show exposure to environmental hazards, VA may consider alternate evidence such as personal statements, statements from other service members that served with the veteran (often called “buddy statements”), unit histories, news articles, and other lay evidence. For instance, a veteran’s statement of burn pit exposure in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Djibouti will be considered. VA will consider this with the facts, places, and circumstances of service as a fact of record (see https://www.benefits.va.gov/COMPENSATION/claims-postservice-exposures-environmental_hazards.asp)
It is important to note that the VA will likely deny your burn pit claim if you are not suffering from a current disability or if you do not have any evidence that you were exposed during service. However, just because you don’t have a disability now doesn’t mean you won’t become disabled later. If you know that you were exposed to a burn pit during your service in southwest Asia, whether you are currently disabled or not, you should keep an eye on your health by seeing your primary care physician annually for a full physical. During your annual medical exam, be sure to describe your symptoms, restrictions, and limitations in detail. Keep in mind that your Doctor can only give an opinion on how your conditions originated if they know what you were exposed to while deployed.
How will my Doctor know if my conditions are related to burn pit exposure and particulate matter?
When requesting a medical examination and/or medical opinion from your doctor (whether private or at the VA) for a claim based on exposure to a burn pit, follow the guidance below from M21-1, Part IV, Subpart ii, 2.C.5.a:
- Advise the examiner of the nature of the claimed environmental hazard and the location and time frame of exposure.
- Ask the examiner whether or not your current disability (or the symptoms of a disability that you are experiencing) could have been caused by exposure.
- Remember that more than one environmental hazard may apply when you (sic) have been exposure to a specific event. Therefore, each Fact Sheet related to service in Iraq as provided in Exhibits 1 through 4 (M21-1, Part IV, Subpart ii, 1.I.9, 10, 11, and 12) should be provided to the VA examiner.
- This is necessary for Iraq (and Afghanistan) Veterans since the Veteran served in Southwest Asia (sic) and could have been exposed to burn pit emissions in addition to (sic) the same high levels of particulate matter (PM) as others in the Southwest Asia Theater of operations.
While it may seem obvious that burn pits and particulate matter have and will continue to cause life-changing problems for many modern veterans, the VA will likely continue to move slowly in recognizing and processing those claims, just as it did for Agent Orange for Vietnam vets. Build up your own evidence by organizing your military records, and regularly visit your doctor, because it will certainly help your case, particularly if you develop a problem later down the road.
It is also important to complete the VA’s Burn Pit Registry found at:
For more information on how the importance of participating in the burn pit registry visit https://www.blogs.va.gov/VAntage/16192/ten-things-veterans-should-know-about-burn-pits/.
If your claim was denied for a condition that you believe results from your exposure to the burn pits at your base in Iraq, Afghanistan, or the Horn of Africa, call us to speak to one of our experienced Veterans Disability attorneys. Consultations are free. We handle claims nationwide, and you can reach us toll-free from anywhere in the USA at (866) 282-5260.