Burn Pit Legislation: Burn Pit Symptoms and Toxic Exposure Legislation

Category: Veterans Disability Law

Article by Daniel J. Tuley

Burn Pit Legislation: Burn Pit Symptoms and Toxic Exposure Legislation

Military burn pits have become a serious issue in regard to VA healthcare in the last three decades. With large amounts of trash burning during the Gulf War and War on Terror, more and more veterans are experiencing both short- and long-term health effects as a result of exposure to airborne toxins. Thankfully, VA and Congress are working together to enact more burn pit legislation as an increasing number of veterans are realizing they were affected.

What Are Military Burn Pits?

A military burn pit is an area in which trash generated by military bases is incinerated. The U.S. military and contractors responsible for trash disposal used burn pits in places like Afghanistan and Iraq after the attacks on September 11, 2001. While this waste disposal strategy effectively handled large amounts of waste and trash, the burning released toxic smoke which was hazardous to nearby individuals.

In places where air quality was already poor, military burn pits added allergens and pollutants to the surrounding atmosphere. Those who lived in the area often developed respiratory issues as a result of the military burn pits. Others who already had respiratory issues saw their conditions worsen as a result of the toxic exposure. These pollutants were also sometimes carried several miles beyond the locations of the burn pits by strong desert winds.

While a fire by itself does not always burn extremely toxic smoke, burn pits incinerated a variety of products that were not intended to burn. Without the safety of a closed space, the toxins released by burned objects were released directly into the surrounding air. The toxins posed an increased risk for all individuals who dealt with the burn pit and anybody who lived near or adjacent to the burn pits. Some examples of items that might be burned at a burning site include the following:

  • Ammunition
  • Batteries
  • Electronics
  • Fluorescent light bulbs
  • Human waste
  • Lubricants
  • Medical waste
  • Oil/gas
  • Paint
  • Petroleum
  • Plastic
  • Rubber
  • Spoiled food
  • Styrofoam
  • Tires
  • Toxic chemicals

Without proper plumbing and waste disposal systems, military bases deemed incineration the most cost-effective way to deal with this waste. Exposed individuals have dealt with a variety of symptoms as a repercussion.

Burn Pit Symptoms

The smoke released from burn pits could have harbored any number and combination of toxic particles. It’s difficult to pin down exactly how much an individual was exposed to or what types of chemicals they were exposed to. Every individual affected by burn pit exposure will likely have different symptoms. However, it’s well-documented that increased frequency and proximity of burn pit exposure will result in more severe problems.

Some of the long-term health effects of burn pits may include the following:

  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Cardiovascular conditions
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Constrictive bronchiolitis
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Eczema
  • Impaired function of the central nervous system
  • Impaired function of liver or kidney
  • Infertility
  • Leukemia
  • Migraines
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Respiratory cancer
  • Skin cancer
  • Skin lesions
  • Stomach cancer
  • Throat infections

Burn pit exposure can lead to problems with the eyes, skin, and other bodily systems. While the initial exposure may be as simple as irritation or difficulty breathing, continued exposure can have a variety of permanent and long-term effects.

Environmental Effects of Burn Pits

Beyond the damage it does to members of the military and surrounding areas, the use of burn pits is also known to harm the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns that open fires can lead to fine-particle air pollution. This type of pollution, also known as particulate matter, is made of extremely small solid and liquid droplets. Breathing in particulate matter for extended periods of time is what leads service members and other individuals to develop burn pit symptoms.

What Is the VA Burn Pit Registry?

In 2014 VA established the AHOBPR, or Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, in an effort to begin collecting data about the hazards of burn pit exposure. The burn pit registry allows veterans to sign up voluntarily with no cost to document their experience with toxic exposure. There is an online questionnaire that determines a veteran’s registration eligibility which can be followed by an optional health assessment.

With the help of the burn pit registry, VA can make informed decisions about the needs of exposed veterans. Signing up for the VA burn pit registry does not require you to have burn pit symptoms, as it is just for research purposes. Signing up for the registry also has no effect on any other VA disability compensation you may currently be receiving.

Out of the estimated 3.5 million veterans that have been exposed to toxic chemicals from burn pits, only about 230,000 have enrolled in the registry as of a 2015 report. The scope of veterans affected by these problems calls for increased burn pit legislation.

Burn Pit Legislation 2021

There are multiple bills being decided upon by Congress right now, including the following:

  • TEAM: Toxic Exposure in the American Military Act
  • Veterans Burn Pit Exposure Recognition Act
  • COVENANT: Conceding Our Veterans’ Exposure Now and Necessitating Training Act
  • Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act of 2021

The near future is expected to be very beneficial to burn pit victims as lawmakers are eager to avoid the mistakes made during the Vietnam War with Agent Orange exposure. Each of these proposed acts could have a major impact on the afflicted population.

Toxic Exposure in the American Military Act (TEAM)

This bill was introduced in April of 2021 and aims to expand VA health care benefits to all veterans exposed to toxic chemicals during their time in the military.

The TEAM Act would require VA to work with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to study the link between illnesses and toxic exposures. This would hold VA accountable for responding to scientific evidence within a realistic timeframe. The TEAM Act would also create an independent commission to study the health effects of all toxic exposures in the military, including those that occurred on bases in the United States. These findings would then be reported to both Congress and VA.

TEAM would implement a toxic exposure questionnaire for veterans to fill out during their VA primary care visits that determine whether or not they were exposed to toxic chemicals in the military. Training for VA personnel in regards to exposure-related conditions would also be improved under this act.

Veterans Burn Pit Exposure Recognition Act

Previously introduced as the Veterans Burn Pit Exposure Recognition Act of 2019, this act was reintroduced to the Senate in February of 2021. The goal of the act is to recognize the lack of information about burn pit exposure and resulting conditions. There is limited information available about the presence and activity of burn pits. This act argues that it is not reasonable to require a veteran to prove exactly which toxins they were exposed to with exact dates of exposure. Though the act still requires veterans to provide ample proof of a link between exposure and a qualifying VA disability, it would make it easier for afflicted individuals to meet eligibility requirements. The act would ensure that the VA and the Department of Defense work with Congress to further expand burn pit research.

Conceding Our Veterans’ Exposure Now and Necessitating Training Act (COVENANT)

The COVENANT Act was introduced in March 2021 and would help veterans in a multitude of ways. The bill would do away with many burdens of proof on veterans vying for disability benefits. They would only need to prove that they served in specific areas during specific times and that they are diagnosed with an illness named by the bill. This would serve as a burn pit presumptive conditions list and would include the following illnesses:

  • Asthma after service
  • Brain cancer
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Constrictive bronchiolitis or obliterative bronchiolitis
  • Emphysema
  • Gastrointestinal cancers
  • Granulomatous disease
  • Head cancers
  • Interstitial lung disease
  • Kidney cancer
  • Lymphatic cancers
  • Lymphoma cancers
  • Melanoma
  • Neck cancers
  • Pleuritis
  • Pulmonary fibrosis
  • Reproductive cancers
  • Respiratory cancers
  • Rhinitis
  • Sarcoidosis
  • Sinusitis

This list would apply to individuals that served after August 1, 1990 in the following locations:

  • Bahrain
  • Iraq
  • Kuwait
  • Oman
  • Qatar
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Somalia
  • The United Arab Emirates

It would also cover those who served after September 11, 2001 in the following locations

  • Afghanistan
  • Djibouti
  • Egypt
  • Jordan
  • Lebanon
  • Syria
  • Yemen
  • Uzbekistan
  • The Philippines
  • “Any other country determined relevant” per the VA secretary

While this bill may be less expensive than other bills, it will not allow new conditions to be covered later. If new burn pit exposure presumptive conditions arise, this could cause a problem for veterans seeking disability.

Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act of 2021

Another bill that was reintroduced in 2021 is the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act. This act would remove the burden of veterans proving a link between a variety of diseases and burn pit exposure. Veterans would only be expected to submit proof that they received a campaign medal in some way related to the Global War on Terror or the Gulf War and that they currently suffer from an eligible health condition. Some of the countries and territories covered by this bill include the following:

  • Afghanistan
  • Bahrain
  • Cameroon
  • Chad
  • Egypt
  • Ethiopia
  • Ghana
  • Iraq
  • Jordan
  • Kenya
  • Kuwait
  • Libya
  • Niger and Nigeria
  • Pakistan
  • The Philippines
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Somalia
  • South Sudan
  • Sudan
  • Syria
  • Tunisia
  • Turkey
  • The United Arab Emirates
  • Uzbekistan
  • Yemen

This bill would allow different conditions to be added at a later date if new connections are to be found. This bill would also extend benefits to veterans affected by nerve agents, chemical weapons, or other battlefield toxins.

Contact Tuley Law Office for Assistance With Burn Pit Exposure Claims

The burn pit legislation surrounding toxic exposure in the U.S. military is complicated and always changing. If you have any reason to believe that you were exposed to toxic chemicals of some kind during your time in the military, you may be eligible for VA disability benefits. The experienced VA disability attorneys at Tuley Law Office can help you determine whether or not you have a case with your current symptoms and diagnosis, as well as help you figure out the best way to present your claim to VA.

Call us at (812) 625-2181 or fill out our online contact form.

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