MILITARY BURN PITS—What Were We Thinking?

August 12, 2022

For years the VA denied any relationship between veterans’ exposure to noxious smoke from burn pits and an array of health concerns, including cancer. More recently, the VA has softened their stance, and promising recent legislation is paving the way for well deserved benefits for veterans who have silently suffered for decades.

Burn Pit Recipe.

To make a burn pit all you do is dig a big hole in the ground, fill it with trash--including medical waste, vehicles, electronic equipment and plastics--douse it with jet fuel and set the whole mess on fire.  Burn pits, ubiquitous features of the post 9/11 wars, were simply a primitive disposal method for the never-ending loads of garbage generated by occupying forces. Depending on the prevailing winds and their locations, smoke emanating from the burning refuse could be intolerable as it permeated throughout camp perimeters.

Soldiers in camps near burn pits spent months in their thick smoke. They inhaled small particles that lodged in their lung tissues and caused unknown damage.  According to VA estimates, nearly 3.5 million soldiers and contractors were exposed to burn-pit smoke after the 1991 invasion of Iraq.  Thousands of troops, hospital and office employees, civilian bureaucrats, diplomats, and contractors were generating vast amounts of waste of every imaginable kind. There was no where to put it but into the fire.  

Biden Becomes Involved.

Back in 2018, then Vice President Joe Biden publicly stated that he believed that toxins found in smoke from burn pits at U.S. military installations overseas, could “play a significant role” in causing veterans’ cancer. The issue was personal for President Biden. His son, Beau Biden, a former Delaware attorney general and member of the Delaware Army National Guard, died at age 46 in 2015 from glioblastoma multiforme, a common and aggressive form of brain cancer. In 2009 Beau served at Camp Victory and at Balad Air Force Base in Iraq. Both camps made excessive use of burn pits. President Biden’s suspicion of a link between burn pits and his son’s cancer was piqued after reading “The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers,” by Joseph Hickman. “There’s a whole chapter on my son Beau in there, and that stunned me. I didn’t know that.” Biden said. Biden compared living and working near a military burn pit to a factory that pollutes. “We know now you don’t want to live underneath a smokestack where carcinogens are coming out of it.”

Dr. Tee Guidotti, an expert in environmental and occupational health and a former chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University Medical Center stated that: “From what I understand, Beau Biden’s exposure was significant, not modest . . . I think that it is possible that the younger Biden’s cancer was caused by burn pit smoke exposure.” Dr. Victoria Cassano, a retired Navy captain and a former acting chief consultant for environmental health at the Department of Veteran Affairs agreed: “There is enough evidence to connect certain carcinogenic and neurological outcomes with exposures to multiple toxicants disbursed in the air from burn pits, as well as other toxicants in the local environment . . .  What occupational physicians do is look at the epidemiology in analogous industries, look at the toxicology and the pathophysiology, and then determine if there is any plausibility in associating exposure with outcome.” For example, research has shown that firefighters who are exposed to numerous chemicals in smoke and agricultural workers exposed to pesticides while working in the field or processing produce could face a higher risk for developing cancer. Similarly, military personnel who were exposed to burn-pit smoke could have a higher risk of developing cancer, she suggested.

According to a recent New York Times article by Megan K. Stack, more than 200,000 people who deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan believe they suffer permanent damages from exposure to burn pits ranging from shortness of breath to rare cancers, such as the one suffered by Beau Biden. In 2011, years prior to President Biden’s involvement, the VA commissioned the National Academy of Sciences to investigate the health hazards of burn pits. The Academy concluded that there was “inadequate/insufficient evidence of an association between exposure to combustion products and cancer, respiratory disease, circulatory disease, neurologic disease, and adverse reproductive and developmental outcomes in the populations studied.” As part of its finding, however, the Academy also noted that “information that would have assisted the committee in determining composition of the smoke” from burn pits, which would have helped assess health hazards, “was not available.”  

Resistance from the Veterans Administration.

Arguments for a connection between burn pits and their long-term damage have been met with resistance from the very entities organized to help our veterans.  Between 2007 and 2020, the VA denied 78 percent of veterans’ disability claims mentioning burn pits, a senior V.A. official testified before Congress in September 2020. It’s clear that the recognition of a link between burn pit exposure and health problems such as cancer would greatly increase the government’s financial and moral exposure. Any service member (or contractor) stationed on bases in Iraq or Afghanistan could possibly make claim. Any proposed reduction of burn pits would also threaten lucrative private contractor deals with the Department of Defense.

VA officials long maintained that there simply wasn’t enough evidence to prove a link between the fires and health problems. A major problem was that symptoms could take years to manifest and evolve. Injuries might not be evident until years after exposure and therefore difficult to track, and patients should be tracked for decades after deployment to get a full picture.

In 2009, the VA initiated a large survey of  20,500 veterans who deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan aimed at evaluating their overall health. It was called the National Health Study for a New Generation of U.S. Veterans, and was led by epidemiologist Steven Coughlin. The study determined that service members who reported exposure to burn pits suffered higher rates of asthma, chronic bronchitis and other respiratory problems compared with troops who were not deployed. However, Coughlin stated that the VA dismissed most of his findings and precluded any publications evidencing links between burn pits and illness.  

Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry.

Congress, on the other hand, began to take  positive action when it enacted legislation establishing a Burn Pit Registry managed by the VA to provide a central location for veterans to record their burn pit exposures as well as resulting symptoms and illnesses. To date, more than 250,000 Veterans have listed their exposure and other information.  Subsequent bills were introduced to garner greater remedies for burn pit exposures. However, it wasn’t until Jon Stewart, the comedian and political commentator, along with a group of 9/11 first responders, successfully lobbied Congress for more action. By the end of 2021, sixteen distinct burn-pit bills were introduced. This new attention to a pervasive problem prompted the VA to take action as well.  The VA’s web site had previously expressly stated that: “Research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits.”   The VA initiated a 360 in later stating that veterans diagnosed with asthma, rhinitis or sinusitis within 10 years of returning from Iraq, Afghanistan or certain other foreign deployments are now presumed to have suffered respiratory damage during their service and are eligible for benefits.

A Class Action Suit Goes Nowhere.  

During this time, a class action was brought against a private company, KBR, by over 800 service members alleging injuries from the burn pits. KBR, a subsidiary of the multinational conglomerate Halliburton, previously run by former vice-president Dick Cheney, was a major player in the billion dollar building and maintenance of burn pits.  After years of litigation,  Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals flatly rejected any liability on the part of KBR, finding that the company was merely following the instructions of the military and, therefore, could not be held liable for damages to the burn pit victims.

The Veterans Burn Pits Exposure Recognition Act of 2021 (the “Burn Pit Act”).

The Burn Pit Act was introduced in the Senate on February 24, 2021. One of its major tenants was the reallocation of the burden of proving damages from burn pit exposure. Specifically, it would require the VA to concede, for the purposes of health care benefits and wartime disability compensation, that a veteran was exposed to certain toxic substances, chemicals, and hazards from burn pits if such veteran served on active duty in a covered location during a specified time frame (unless there is affirmative evidence to establish that the veteran was not exposed during such service).  

The following are the relevant covered locations and corresponding time periods under the Burn Pit Act:

  • Iraq between August 2, 1990, and February 28, 1991, and after March 19, 2003, until burn pits are no longer used there;
  • Southwest Asia (including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Qatar) from August 2, 1990, until burn pits are no longer used in these locations; and
  • Afghanistan, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, and Djibouti from September 11, 2001, until burn pits are no longer used in these locations.

The Burn Pit Act would also provide additional benefits to veterans.  It would increase qualifying veteran’s VA health care eligibility after discharge from five years to 10 and would also allow for a one-year open enrollment period for any Post-9/11 combat veterans outside that 10-year window. The Act would expand health care access, medical screenings, research, and training relating to burn pit exposure as well as further studies including one on mortality rates of veterans who served in Southwest Asia during the Persian Gulf War.  

While Main Street Law Firm does not handle VA disability claims, we will continue to keep our readers, especially our veteran friends, apprised of new developments in burn pit legislation and other related developments. Other veterans’ claims we handle that have been discussed in prior issues of the GAVEL include:

1.   Defective 3M Ear Plugs:  If you or a loved one was a U.S. military service member, veteran or contractor between 2003 and 2015 who was diagnosed with partial or total hearing loss or suffer from tinnitus, you may have a claim against 3M. Click here for a free review of your case.

2.   Terrorism Fund. If you or a loved one are a U.S. military service member, veteran, or military contractor who suffered injuries from certain explosive terrorist devices between 2003 and 2011, you may have a claim for significant damages even if you are already receiving disability or other compensation.  Click here for a free review of your case.

3.   Firefighting Foam.  If you are a veteran of a military base or resident who lived near a military base and developed cancer, you may be entitled to compensation without ever going to court. Fill out our free case review here and a legal professional will contact you to help determine if you have a claim.

4.    CPAP and BiPAP Machine Recall. If you or someone you love has developed a chronic respiratory illness, such as asthma, or were diagnosed with cancer after your use of a Philips CPAP or BiPAP machine, you may be eligible to receive substantial compensation without ever going to court. Fill out our free case review today to find out if you could be eligible.

As always, if you do not receive a recovery through a lawsuit or settlement, you don’t owe us anything.

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