House Democrats Prioritize Burn Pit Legislation

House Democrats Prioritize Burn Pit Legislation

Speaker Nancy Pelosi insisted that broad burn pit protection was a high priority for legislators in 2022. “From our standpoint, if you were there, you qualify,” she stated. “We don’t have to go through any torturous process to decide if somebody’s illness depended on something that they were exposed to,” she added.

In 2021, emotional testimony from comedian and advocate Jon Stewart prompted lawmakers to add burn pit-related sinusitis, rhinitis, and asthma to the presumptive list of covered conditions. But now, some lawmakers want to dramatically expand this list. “I thought that the United States government would have learned its lesson with Agent Orange and all of the bureaucratic red tape and the years of waiting and suffering that so many of our Vietnam-era veterans went through,” remarked Texas Democrat U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro. “We need to do right by our service members. These are people who went and risked their lives on behalf of the United States and our allies around the world. They put themselves in harm’s way, and they were in fact harmed by these burn pits.” 

These lawmakers must overcome significant pushback over the cost. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that expanded burn pit coverage would cost over $280 billion through 2031.

Burn Pit Injuries and Treatments

Many new recruits joined the Armed Forces in the wake of 9/11. These individuals wanted desperately to fight America’s terrorist enemies. These individuals did not want to dig latrines or empty trash receptacles. So, when the Americans invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, commanders were ill-prepared to meet such needs.

In times like this, burn pits are usually a very effective temporary solution. All trash is dumped into an open-air pit and burned. The smoke is noxious. But as long as the group is on the move and the pits remain small, there is usually little negative fallout.

The problem in this context is that the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns were not blitzkrieg strikes. They were long, protracted conflicts in which troops were largely stationary. For some reason, instead of changing waste disposal tactics, perhaps because changing tactics would be an admission of defeat, commanders simply authorized more and bigger burn pits.

Very shortly, burn pits became so big and so numerous that they were a serious health hazard. Almost immediately, a few military doctors tried to sound the alarm. But no one was listening. As a result, a significant number of Southwest Asia veterans have issues with cancer or chronic breathing problems.

Burn pits usually contain refuse like metal vehicle parts, rubber tires, plastic water bottles, and styrofoam cups. When these items burn, the smoke contains high levels of heavy metals and other toxic particles. One of these particles is Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin. TCDD is also one of the main chemical components in Agent Orange.

The body cannot dispose of such particles, so they build up. Over time, these accumulated toxic particles alter cell chemistry and create tumors. 

In November 2021, the VA launched a 90-day review to determine the connection between burn pit smoke and various kinds of cancer, including:

  • Brain cancer,
  • Leukemia,
  • AL Amyloidosis,
  • Bladder cancer,
  • Lymphoma,
  • Bone cancer,
  • Multiple myeloma, and
  • Pancreatic cancer.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough promised to make the process “faster,” “more transparent,” and “more responsive.” But those are all rather vague promises.

Overall, cancer treatments have improved significantly since the 1990s. Chemotherapy drugs are a good example. These drugs, which kill fast-dividing cells, like cancer cells, are stronger with fewer side-effects, at least for the most part. Progress comes at a price. Today’s chemotherapy drugs are also incredibly expensive. Cancer treatments could cost upwards of $10,000 per month. Chemotherapy drugs represent most of that cost.

The chronic breathing problems connected with burn pit exposure include diseases like constrictive bronchiolitis. This condition is almost unheard of among young people who are generally healthy. But an alarming number of young, healthy Southwest Asia veterans have developed this condition, which is also known as popcorn lung. Apropos of nothing, popcorn lung is also a side-effect of vaping.

Basically, CB is scar tissue in the lung’s tiny airways. This condition develops so slowly that many victims do not even know they are sick. Initial symptoms include a dry cough and shortness of breath. Generally, most people do not discuss these symptoms with a doctor except at their annual visit. When patients talk, doctors usually do not pay much attention. According to one study, doctors listened to patients describe their symptoms for 11 seconds. Then, they interrupted or redirected them.

Advanced constrictive bronchiolitis is very difficult to treat. The only option is a risky lung transplant.

Injury Compensation Available

Politicians and bureaucrats have promised quick and decisive action in this area. Of course, they said the same thing about Agent Orange coverage. All these years later, many exposed veterans are either ineligible for benefits or must fight very hard to obtain them.

The Defense Base Act, which compensates injured private military contractors, is separate from the Veterans Administration disability process. The Department of Labor, and not the VA or DoD, oversees Defense Base Act matters. And, a DOL Administrative Law Judge has ruled that private military contractors are eligible for burn pit benefits.

These victims, like all other victims, must establish a nexus (indirect connection) between their injuries and their deployments. That is similar to the rather low service-related connection standard the VA uses. But the DBA standard is still lower.

Assume Mary is seriously hurt in a car crash in Kuwait. Under the VA’s disability rules, unless she was on the base or performing some service-related work, she would probably be ineligible for disability benefits. But if Mary was a private military contractor, the DBA would most likely apply.

Furthermore, injured victims must have been hurt in a war zone and have worked for a covered employer. For DBA purposes, Kuwait is a war zone. There are no anti-insurgency or other military operations in Kuwait. However, the United States military has assets in Kuwait. Therefore, it is a war zone by definition. Covered employers usually mean any U.S. government unit, such as the State Department and DoD. Contractors who work for some sympathetic foreign governments might also be eligible for DBA benefits.

These benefits, which usually include lost wage replacement and medical bill payment, are available regardless of fault.

For more information about DBA procedure, contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen, Frankel & Castro, P.A.