Is the VA Changing its Tune on Burn Pits?

Is the VA Changing its Tune on Burn Pits?

Officials who reviewed a Wounded Warrior Project study acknowledged some “alarming” trends regarding burn pit illnesses.

At a seminar about the WWP study, VA deputy under secretary for Discovery, Education and Affiliate Networks D. Carolyn Clancy vowed “We won’t stop until we get some. . .answers.” The study, which looked at over 300,000 Southwest Asia veterans, concluded that some 70% of these veterans were exposed to toxic burn pit smoke. The WWP’s metrics director called that finding “alarming.”

Despite the growing evidence of a link between burn pit smoke and serious illness, the VA still refuses to give these veterans any benefits.

Burn Pit Use

When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, some people in the Pentagon predicted quick victories over the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. Those predictions partially came true. President George W. Bush famously, or perhaps infamously, declared victory after just a few weeks of fighting. But the American invasion sparked an insurgency which lasted for years.

As a result, American troops who had expected to be in-country for a few months stayed much longer. Logistical issues, like waste management, became an issue. In temporary situations, the DoD allows soldiers to use waste disposal burn pits. Shove all refuse into a hole, light a match, and walk away.

Burn pits are not sanitary, healthy, or environmentally friendly. But in a pinch, they will do. However, as the weeks stretched into months and then into years, servicemembers and contractors alike were exposed to high levels of toxic smoke. KBR contractors may have borne the brunt of this risk, because they handled most of the burn pit duties.

For some reason, the DoD neglected waste disposal infrastructure, even at huge places like Iraq’s Joint Base Balad. JBB soon became known as Camp Anaconda, largely because of the burn pit smoke which continually billowed into the sky.

Burn Pit Illnesses

The human body can resist bacterial and other infections, but it cannot resist toxic products. For example, one microscopic asbestos fiber can cause mesothelioma. Since all base refuse went into burn pits, the smoke contained a number of toxins, such as:

  • Particulate matter,
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons,
  • Volatile organic compounds,
  • Carbon monoxide,
  • Hexachlorobenzene,
  • Ash, and
  • Dioxins.

Dioxins are especially troubling. These particles are incredibly toxic and remain in the human body almost indefinitely. Plastics, such as discarded water bottles, have high levels of dioxin. If this waste goes into an incinerator or is otherwise safely disposed of, the dixoins are not a problem. But burn pits are not hot enough to incinerate these particles and their open-air nature is not at all safe.

Particulate matter is a problem, as well. Over time, these particles can cause serious lung problems. Yet the VA insists that any exposure to burn pit smoke only causes “temporary” issues like “eye irritation and burning, coughing and throat irritation, breathing difficulties, and skin itching and rashes.”

Many of these toxic particles are linked to cancer. Beau Biden, the former Vice-President’s son, developed terminal brain cancer shortly after a tour of duty with the JAG in Iraq. Since Biden spent most of his time in a base near toxic burn pit smoke, it is reasonable to assume that there was a connection.

The lung problem is often constrictive bronchiolitis. CB closes tiny airways in the lungs. This serious condition is almost unheard of in young adults who are otherwise healthy. As a result, when these victims see doctors, physicians often misdiagnose their condition as COPD, bronchitis, or another more common and less serious conditions. By the time an accurate CB diagnosis comes, the disease may be so advanced that a radical lung transplant is the only possible treatment. This procedure is quite risky and not guaranteed to work.

Compensation Available

Treatments for conditions like CB and brain cancer are available, but they are quite expensive. Fortunately, the Defense Base Act pays for all reasonable necessary related medical expenses following a deployment-related illness or injury. These expenses include:

  • Emergency care,
  • Follow up treatment,
  • Medical devices,
  • Transportation expenses,
  • Medical devices, and
  • Physical or occupational therapy.

Generally, injured contractors may select their own doctors and change physicians at any time during the course of treatment.

Frequently, physical or occupational therapy is the most important component of medical treatment. Physical therapy is rebuilding strength in muscles and joints to regain lost physical functions; occupational therapy is learning a new trade because the illness or injury is too severe to return to a previous occupation.

Physical therapy progress sometimes comes in fits and starts. If the victim temporarily plateaus, some insurance companies try to cut off funding. An attorney can keep the money flowing so the victim can fully recover and get back to work. That is in everyone’s best interests.

Contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen, Frankel & Castro, P.A. for more information about DBA lost wages benefits.