New Study Confirms Health Effects of Burn Pits

One of the largest studies to date concluded that burn pits could cause serious health problems, mostly respiratory problems, for millions of veterans.

The study looked at the records of 459,381 military veterans receiving health care from the Veterans Administration to determine the health effects of exposure to burn pits. Longer deployment to military bases with open burn pits was associated with significant increases in risk of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and hypertension, said the report, authored by a collection of researchers from numerous universities. 

The study “is an important milestone in conducting research on health outcomes associated with exposures occurring during military service,” the researchers said. 

For years, many in the military community have believed that burn pits, which were commonplace at scores of combat outposts in Iraq and Afghanistan, put the health of troops in danger. But to date, research on the long-term health consequences of exposure to open burn pits has been limited despite public concern, the study said. 

While deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq have been associated with a higher risk of respiratory disease, a research challenge has been determining whether exposure to something other than burn pits could account for the ailments, the study said. 

To carry out a more precise analysis required a large sample of veterans and the ability to isolate any burn pit exposure from other environmental hazards during a deployment. The researchers were able to do that by reconstructing veterans’ histories of deployment to bases with and without burn pits, using recently declassified military deployment records and VA health data. The study is perhaps the most extensive look at long-term health outcomes associated with burn pit exposures, given that it considers a much larger number of veterans than past reviews, researchers said.

Burn Pits

Almost everyone has gone camping at one time or another, either willingly or under compulsion. Usually, the last order of business before breaking camp is throwing all refuse into the campfire. That’s not a safe environmental practice. However, it’s much better than the alternative, which is throwing this stuff on the ground. 

Therefore, campers throw all their Styrofoam cups, plastic water bottles, and other trash onto the fire. Then, they try not to stand too close as the flames incinerate the garbage.

A burn pit is like a huge campfire. The fire must be big enough to incinerate waste for thousands, or tens of thousands, of people. At its height, Joint Base Balad in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle housed some 30,000 people. JBB was nicknamed Camp Anaconda for a reason. More on that below.

Furthermore, at a campfire, the campers move on after maybe two or three nights. Joint Base Balad remained fully active for about 3,000 nights (eight years). Every day, the trash pile got bigger, so the campfire (burn pit) got bigger as well.

Toxic smoke and ash soon began to blanket much of Joint Base Balad and everywhere else burn pits were used. For years, the VA denied that burn pits caused respiratory problems. Instead, government lawyers blamed these health problems on the dust and particulate matter that flew around in the Iraqi Desert. President Joe Biden, who lost his son to what was probably burn pit-related brain cancer, made it his personal mission to change the law. 

The toxic smoke not only clogged lungs. It also altered the body’s chemistry. Much military trash is highly toxic. For example, discarded humvee and other vehicle parts often have high levels of cadmium, chromium, and other dangerous heavy metals. Long-term exposure to these toxins causes a variety of serious illnesses which, in most cases, are fatal.

Compounding the situation, the military knew about the problem and ignored it. Burn pits during the brief Persian Gulf War caused numerous health problems. Yet the DoD not only reauthorized burn pit use. It greatly expanded burn pit use.

Burn Pits and VA Disability

Federal law regarding burn pit exposure injuries has changed, but unfortunately for veterans, the process has not changed much.

As mentioned above, about a million veterans may have a burn pit illness claim. The sheer volume of claims has overwhelmed the VA disability system, which was notoriously slow and ineffective to begin with. 

This process usually begins with an initial review. Claims Examiners almost always deny claims at this point. Usually, they are under pressure to weed out inappropriate or unsubstantiated claims. As the office’s backlog grows, the definition of what’s inappropriate or unsubstantiated expands.

This attitude usually continues at the subsequent review level. If bureaucrats approve the claim, they often only approve a fraction of that claim. The government often blows some findings, like the “other causes” finding in the recent study, out of proportion.

The VA disability system uses a rating system (10 percent disabled, 50 percent disabled, etc.) VA bureaucrats take a broad view of uninstantiated claims, and VA doctors take a narrow view of the disabled. Frequently, if a veteran tries to power through a disability and keep working, VA lawyers use that moxie against the claimant and argue that they are not truly disabled.

It all comes down to money. The VA disability system is largely a taxpayer-funded system. That is the main reason the burn pit expansion met so much opposition. Many lawmakers simply did not want to pay for it.

Burn Pits and the DBA

The presumption and process are flipped for injured private military contractors who partner with a good Defense Base Act lawyer.

Insurance companies earn over $1 trillion a year. Most people, whether they are contractors, Claims Examiners, or Administrative Law Judges, expect insurance companies to open their checkbooks when a policyholder presents a valid claim.

Furthermore, the process is different, at least from the standpoint of burn pits. Procedurally, it is much the same. An initial Claims Examiner review is followed by an ALJ appeal. However, about ten years before the PACT Act, the Department of Labor, which administers the Defense Base Act, authorized payment for burn pit illness claims.

This authorization is huge for private military contractors. Usually, contractors are like office temps. They get the bad jobs, like maintaining burn pits, that no one else wants. As a result, many contractors were directly exposed to toxic smoke all day, every day, often for weeks or months at a time.For more information about DBA benefits, contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen, Frankel & Castro, P.A.