There has been quite a bit of publicity in the last few years about the medical issues arising from the “burn pits” that were used for waste disposal in Iraq, Afghanistan and a few other locations where the U.S. military has established bases. Apparently, anything and everything that could burn was burned in these pits, and often the fumes were toxic. Plastic, medical waste, batteries, food waste, appliances, even dead animals and human body parts were burned, torched with jet fuel.
Troops and contractors alike have been having lung issues, cardiac issues and have developed cancers that are now being associated with the fumes from the burn pits.
There is a long list of potential effects from breathing the fumes from the burn pits, and there have been Congressional hearings on this issue. The most obvious ailments- allergy, asthma, other lung and breathing issues top the list- but there have been numerous cancers and heart disease detected as well. Some have reported weeping, open wounds on their skin. There have been some deaths associated with problems arising from the exposure. Many of the problems are those similar to those seen in the first responders to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, who breathed in the toxic dust from the explosions and resulting fires.
This problem is rapidly becoming the next Agent Orange issue, with many serious side effects resulting from the exposures. Like Agent Orange, it may take years for the symptoms to manifest, but they can be deadly when they do appear.
“No Serious Side Effects”
It should come as no surprise that initially, the military denied there were any serious side effects from breathing the smoke and ash from these pits. In response to numerous inquiries and complaints, the official stance was that there was no permanent damage, other than temporary coughing or stinging and redness of the eyes. They maintained they were monitoring the air quality, and that there was nothing toxic. The science, and the medical conditions that are manifesting, seem to contradict this claim.
Burning plastic does create airborne toxins, and there have been traces of other particulate matter found in the lungs of those exposed. Some troops have heavy metals present in their lungs, such as uranium and titanium inhaled from the dust and smoke. The smoke from burning animals or human body parts with infectious diseases can harm those who inhale the smoke.
What is Being Done?
In January of 2013 the law was signed that required the Veterans Administration to create a Burn Pit Registry for those service members who were exposed. Just recently, on July 1, the Veterans Administration rolled out the Burn Pit Registry that lists the general locations where the burn pits operated and allows those who served in those locations register. The VA will then track their medical issues to determine whether those conditions were caused by the exposures. The following areas were designated as those with possible exposure.
- Saudi Arabia
- Gulf of Aden
- Gulf of Oman/Oman
- United Arab Emirates
- Waters of the Persian Gulf
- Arabian Sea & Red Sea
Finally, studies were ordered and it was “discovered” that indeed there were dangerous pollutants in the air near the burn pits. The VA also ordered a study on the long term effects of exposure, after the legislation ordering the Burn Pit registry was unanimously passed by the Senate.
Who Is Responsible?
In some locations, the contractor that was in charge of the waste management for the military was KBR, formerly a Halliburton subsidiary. In other locations it was the military that took this responsibility. We have not burned waste like this in the U.S. in a very long time. Much of Europe burns its waste, because of the space limitation, but they do so in incinerators with scrubbers and monitors and filters – not just open pits. It was meant to be a temporary solution to the waste problem, but the pits stayed operational long after incinerators could have been installed.
Some members of the military and private employees who have suffered injuries due to the toxic exposures have sued KBR in various suits in Oregon, Indiana and South Carolina. The litigation is complex, and we will talk more about it in another article. In one case a federal judge initially threw the case out of court, but on appeal a 3 judge panel overturned that decision. The present state of the litigation is that it (1) consolidated 58 separate lawsuits against KBR and its former parent company, Halliburton and (2) deemed that the defendants are not automatically entitled to derivative battlefield immunity from the U.S. government. The appeals decision allows the lawsuit to go forward. KBR has asked the Supreme Court to rule on the issue of immunity, and has asked for delays on the other cases until that is resolved. It is not yet known if the Supreme Court will grant KBR’s request.
Not The End of the Story
Given the massive litigation currently ongoing, and the potential liability of KBR, it may be some time before we know whether an employee of a private contractor may proceed with a civil lawsuit for injuries received from the burn pits. The back story of this issue is complex, and full of drama worthy of the Erin Brockovich film – allegations of secret deals with the government, cover-ups, threats to whistleblowers, military personnel who lost their jobs trying to make superiors listen to the dangers of the burn pits – it may be years before the real story unfolds.
Contractor Burn Pit Claims
Employees of U.S. contractors were exposed to the same toxic fumes and are suffering the same types of medical problems. The VA will have benefits available for the military personnel, but what about those working for private contractors?
There are benefits available under the Defense Base Act, which covers those working for U.S. contractors overseas. These include lost wages, medical care and, if necessary, death benefits. This type of injury is not like a traumatic injury, this would be considered an occupational disease. These claims need to be filed in a timely manner, and an experienced Defense Base Act attorney can help you with this claim. It is a technical, administrative process, and you don’t want to foreclose your claim by not complying with the rules. It is best to get professional help.
If you or someone you know worked overseas and is experiencing symptoms that may be related to the toxic fumes from the burn pits, you should contact an attorney experienced in Defense Base Act claims. They can start the process for you, and help get the compensation you deserve.