Learning More About Burn Pit Injuries With AI

Participants in a new study will wear ring-shaped remote medical monitors that track oxygen saturation levels and other vital data, which doctors can then interpret.

During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military used open-air burn pits to get rid of garbage. Plastics, metal, and even biohazardous waste were doused in jet fuel and set on fire. Millions of service members inhaled the noxious fumes.

Through artificial intelligence and a finger-worn monitor, researchers hope to collect health data over several years so they can learn more about burn pit exposure and develop new tests and treatments.

“Technology allows us to remotely monitor patients,” said Dr. Anthony Szema, the pulmonologist leading the study through Northwell Health, one of the largest health systems in New York.

“We can stick a ring on somebody’s finger, it goes to their phone, the veteran can look at their oxygen saturation and heart rate because it’s a continuous pulse oximeter,” he said.

“This is actually big data artificial intelligence,” he continued. “Because if we’re taking readings every five seconds for the next two years, that’s a lot of information, then we can cross-correlate it.”

Szema said he hopes the real-time monitoring and standardized screening questionnaires will help define what veterans often report as vague, hard-to-explain symptoms.

Burn Pits in Southwest Asia

Historically, Western nations generally underestimate non-Western wartime opponents. History repeated itself when the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 as part of the country’s Global War on Terror.

American planners expected quick victories in both countries. In a way, they were correct. The Taliban used thugs to control Afghanistan. These thugs were no match for professional soldiers. Two years later, the Iraqi Army fought poorly, just as it did in the Persian Gulf War some 12 years earlier.

American planners essentially believed that when the regular Afghanistan army was defeated, everyone else would roll over and quit. That was not the case. Muslim clerics rallied the people to fight infidel invaders, as they had done many times before. Additionally, ordinary Afghans did not take kindly to the presence of a foreign occupying army, regardless of that army’s good intentions.

Arguably, that is all 20-20 hindsight. At the time, planners stressed the fact that the Persian Gulf War, like the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and several Arab countries, ended quickly. Burn pits are excellent waste disposal tools in quick conflicts.

When people go camping, they do not build landfills or recycling centers. They throw garbage onto the campfire, pack up, and move on. Burn pits operate on the same principle. Fast-moving armies have no need for waste disposal infrastructure. Instead, they throw everything onto the campfire and move on. “Everything” means everything, including:

  • Medical waste,
  • Styrofoam cups,
  • Plastic water bottles,
  • Metal auto parts,
  • Rubber tyres, and

Many of these items are highly toxic. The toxic smoke could cause a number of long-term breathing and other issues.

The volume wasn’t the only issue. If the unit stays in one place, soldiers and contractors breathe these toxic fumes day after day for weeks or months at a time.

Burn Pit Injuries

Respiratory distress, mostly lung diseases, and toxic exposure illnesses, mostly cancer, are the leading burn pit injuries.

Contractors are especially at risk for such injuries. Usually, private military contractors are the office temps. They do all the jobs, like maintaining open-air burn pits, that no one else wants. Furthermore, like office temps, DoD supervisors often believe that contractors are disposable. Routine precautions, like wearing a protective suit when working on a burn pit, are either unavailable or discouraged.

Constrictive bronchiolitis might be the most common burn pit-related lung disease. Doctors often misdiagnose this condition. Young people who are generally healthy, such as private military contractors, almost never develop CB.

Toxic smoke burns tissues in the lung’s narrow airways. The resulting scar tissue blocks these airways. Mostly because of the aforementioned diagnosis issues, by the time doctors correctly identify the problem, they must use radical and expensive methods, such as a lung transplant, to treat the victim.

These diagnosis issues are not as acute in DBA cases. These victims may choose their own doctors. A Defense Base Act lawyer typically connects a victim with a doctor who’s experienced in this area.

Toxic particles also alter cellular DNA, a process that could cause many serious injuries. That is especially true since the body cannot dispose of toxic particles. So, the particles accumulate, causing even more damage. Possible illnesses include:

  • Skin and stomach cancer,
  • Central nervous system issues,
  • Leukemia,
  • Reduced kidney function,
  • Autoimmune diseases,
  • Skin lesions,
  • Infertility,
  • Crohn’s Disease,
  • Eczema,
  • Throat infections, and
  • Multiple sclerosis.

Brain cancer, which killed the President’s son Beau Biden in 2015, is another example. His death prompted Biden to push hard for the PACT Act. This measure, which lawmakers recently approved, opens the door for VA disability benefits related to toxic exposure in Southwest Asia.

Injury Compensation Available

The door may be open, but it is certainly not wide open. Usually, Claims Examiners do not approve burn pit applications unless the victim presents overwhelming medical evidence, along with expert testimony linking the illness to burn pit smoke. Largely for this reason, many veterans still have not gone through the VA disability process.

The picture is much different for private military contractors. The system is not very victim-friendly, but a Defense Base Act lawyer can cite precedent. Administrative Law Judges have consistently held that DBA benefits, including lost wage replacement and medical bill payment, are available for DRLD (deployment-related lung disease) and other burn pit-affiliated injuries.

Unfortunately for victims, ALJ review is not the first stop in the injury compensation process. Instead, a Claims Examiner reviews the medical records and presides at a settlement conference. Occasionally, Defense Base Act injury claims settle at this point. However, the insurance company has little incentive to make a reasonable offer. In fact, the company has an incentive to make an unreasonable offer. Many victims take initial denials very hard, so they abandon their claims or settle them for pennies on the dollar.

Favorable settlement is much more likely as the ALJ appeal hearing date approaches. Insurance company lawyers know the law is against them regarding burn pit injuries. As a result, they are willing to resolve these claims on victim-friendly terms.

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