During the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as much as 250 tons of trash a day were burned with jet fuel in huge open pits the size of football fields, spewing toxic fumes and carcinogens into the air. Service-members burned all kinds of garbage, from Styrofoam to lithium-ion batteries to medical waste–even body parts. When trash is burned it releases dioxin in the air, the same chemical used in Agent Orange. So it’s no wonder that veterans exposed to toxic smoke from open burn pits went on to develop a number of severe illnesses.
Open burn pits were often located close to soldiers’ living quarters. The closer you were to burn pit smoke and the longer you were exposed to it, the higher the likelihood that your illnesses are exposure-related. Researchers continue to find evidence showing the link between burn pit exposure and a number of long-term illnesses. There is sufficient evidence to service-connect the following illnesses:
- Asthma that was diagnosed after service
- Cancer of any type
- Chronic bronchitis
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- Constrictive bronchiolitis or obliterative bronchiolitis
- Granulomatous disease
- Interstitial lung disease
- Pulmonary fibrosis
The VA has been slow to acknowledge the connection, but lawmakers are actively pushing to legislate presumptive benefits for all of these diseases and medical conditions. That means that if you served in an area where burn pits were in common use and later got sick, the VA would presume that your decline in health is connected to your service overseas. But for now, the VA requires you to prove that your illnesses are service-connected on a case-by-case basis.
Where Were Burn Pits Used?
The map below shows the countries where burning trash in open pits was a common practice.
Veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation New Dawn are the most likely to have been exposed to burn pits. Burn pits were in heaviest use in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and 2008, when they began to be phased out following public outcry.
The VA estimates that 3.5 million veterans were exposed to burn pits, but not everyone exposed to toxic smoke will develop long-term illnesses. As we mentioned before, the severity of burn pit exposure-related illnesses depends on length of exposure, proximity, and other genetic factors. The only requirements for getting disability benefits are 1) a chronic illness that began or worsened after an overseas deployment at a base where burn pits were used, and 2) medical evidence supporting your claim.
How To Get Service-Connected Disability Benefits for Burn Pit Exposure
If you were exposed to burn pits and got sick, the first thing you should do is register with the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry (AHOBPR). This helps the VA better understand the scope and long-term effects of exposure to burn pits, which helps out fellow veterans in the same boat as you. Next, file a disability benefits claim to get the ball rolling. You will need to provide medical evidence and testimony from your doctors demonstrating that your illnesses are the result of exposure to a documented burn pit.
Be sure to also take a look at the eligibility criteria for Gulf War Syndrome. Many veterans with Gulf War Syndrome, a multi-symptom illness with no definitive source, are thought to have been exposed to burn pits. If you suffer from the broader set of illnesses that fall under the umbrella of Gulf War Syndrome, it may be easier to get benefits. That’s because presumption of service-connection has already been mandated by Congress.
Related Page: Veterans Disability Benefits for Gulf War Syndrome
Presumptive Benefits for Burn Pits
As of August 2021, only three conditions are fast-tracked for benefits. They are asthma, sinitus, and rhinitus.
When a disease or condition is fast-tracked that means the VA ‘presumes’ service-connection when processing your claim, which lowers the amount of evidence you need to provide. This is good news for veterans. It can be challenging to prove a direct service connection for toxic exposures, such as burn pits in the Middle East or Agent Orange in Vietnam. The Agent Orange presumptive list, for example, includes 17 diseases that were added — by the VA or Congressional mandate — over a period of thirty years.
We’re at the very beginning of the process with presumptive benefits for burn pit exposure. Up til now, the burden has been on veterans and their advocates to prove a direct service connection. Under the new VA rule, if you operated near burn pits in what the VA calls the Southwest Asia theater or operations from 2001 to the present and later developed asthma, sinitus, or rhinitus, you’re entitled to disability compensation without having to provide any additional evidence.