A NOTE ABOUT THIS ARTICLE
The VA is undergoing a review process to determine if open-air military burn pits may cause cancer. While internal VA data has only recently established asthma, rhinitis, and sinusitis as presumptive service connections, external data being used in the review may result in additional service connections for cancer and lung disease.
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In this article about burn pits and cancer
- Burn pits and presumptive service connections
- Open-air burn pits
- Health effects from burn pits
- Presumptive service connections to burn pits
- The presumptive service connection rulemaking process
- What has been the military’s response to burn pits?
- How to get VA disability benefits from burn-pit-related illness
- How Woods and Woods can help
Burn pits and presumptive service connections
Since 1990, as many as 3.7 million service members may have been exposed to toxic smoke from open-air military burn pits during their service, resulting in possible adverse health effects.
In August 2021, the VA ruled that veterans diagnosed with qualifying health effects, including asthma, rhinitis, and sinusitis, would be eligible for VA disability benefits with a presumptive service connection.
The VA gives a presumption for service connection for burn pit exposure for qualifying illnesses in veterans who served in the Southwest Asia theater of operations since 1990, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf. Therefore, if veterans show they have been diagnosed with a qualifying illness and served near these burn pits, they will be granted service connection for VA disability benefits.
Veteran groups continue to draw attention to other severe illnesses, like cancer and lung disease, as also being connected to open-air burn pits. In November 2021, the Biden Administration announced the VA would review evidence and make possible recommendations for new presumptions of service connection for cancers and lung disease in early February.
At that time, the executive branch would consider what, if any, new presumptive service connections will be included. The VA is expected to enact any new rules by the summer of 2022.
Open-air burn pits
Open-air burn pits are areas the military uses to dispose of garbage and other materials. Burn pits were the default disposal method in many places to ensure enemies could not reuse discarded material.
The pits burned tires, plastics, styrofoam, food waste, ammunition, pesticide containers, batteries, and human and medical waste. A 2010 Government Accountability Report found more than 1,000 toxins and carcinogens in samples from burn pits.
These pits stood next to where service members lived and worked, regularly exposing them to toxic smoke.
Health effects from burn pits
For some service members, eye and skin irritation and breathing difficulties were immediate effects of exposure. However, these symptoms often resolved independently after the service member was no longer near the smoke from the pit.
Veterans stationed near burn pits have reported varying effects depending on a number of factors, including what was burned, the frequency and length of the exposure, and the environment and weather that affected the smoke distribution from the pit.
Over time, the toxic air contributed to higher rates of illnesses, and likely not just the approved presumptive conditions of asthma, rhinitis, and sinusitis but also types of cancers and lung disease. However, the VA said it lacks the evidence in their internal data that cancers and lung disease were related to the exposure to these military airborne hazards. Because of the lack of internal information, the VA did not include these illnesses in the first round of granted presumptive service connections to open-air burn pits. Now, the VA is incorporating data beyond its internal information to determine if cancer and lung disease are related to toxic smoke.
Since 9/11, nearly 40,000 service members applied for disability compensation for cancer. Sixty percent were rejected.
Presumptive service connections to burn pits
The VA established a presumptive service connection for asthma, rhinitis, and sinusitis to exposure to burn pits during service for all service members who served in the Southwest Asia theater of operations since 1990. In addition, those who served in Afghanistan, Djibouti, Egypt, Syria, and Uzbekistan since September 19, 2001, are also eligible for this connection. Veterans must have been ill within ten years of their active service.
The presumptive service connection rulemaking process
Historically, establishing presumptive service connections for veterans has not been quick.
From 1962 to 1971, the U.S. used 11 million gallons of Agent Orange, a toxic herbicide used in Vietnam. According to a Congressional Research Service 2014 report, the VA began receiving health claims related to Agent Orange in 1977. It wasn’t until 14 years later that Agent Orange exposure was declared a presumptive service connection for certain diseases as a result of the Agent Orange Act in 1991. Diseases related to Agent Orange continued to be added to the list even up to 2010 when the VA added Parkinson’s Disease, Hairy Cell and other Chronic B-Cell Leukemia, and Ischemic Heart Disease.
As for burn pits, along with the initial presumptive conditions and the ongoing study, the agency recently changed its website language about the health effects of burn pits from “No known connection” to “Depending on a variety of factors, you may experience health effects related to this exposure.”
What has been the military’s response to burn pits?
According to the Department of Defense (DOD), it has closed most burn pits and has plans in place to close the remainder.
More than 240,000 former service members have joined the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, where they can report their exposure to burn pits. The registry is open to millions of service members who served in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf even if they are not experiencing any current symptoms. Veterans who served in Egypt and Syria will also be eligible to register through a provision in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act.
How to get VA disability benefits from burn-pit-related illness
If you served near an open-air burn pit and developed asthma, sinusitis, rhinitis, or rhinosinusitis within ten years of your service, you are eligible for VA disability benefits through the presumptive service connection.
We never charge for helping you with your initial application. If you appeal a decision, you won’t pay us unless we win your case.
If you have cancer, lung disease, or another illness you believe is related to your time served near open-air burn pits, please give Woods and Woods a call.
How Woods and Woods can help
An experienced VA disability law firm will provide you with an accomplished team to help you receive your VA benefits. We’ve represented thousands of veterans and work hard to stay on top of the disability benefit changes to ensure you are getting the support you need. Contact our team, and let us help you with your application today.
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FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
In November 2021, the Biden Administration announced the VA would review the evidence and recommend possible new presumptions of service connection for cancers and lung disease in early February. At that time, the executive branch would consider what, if any, new presumptive service connections will be included. The VA is expected to enact any new rules by the summer of 2022.
The VA established a presumptive service connection for asthma, rhinitis, and sinusitis to exposures to burn pits during service for all service members who served in the Southwest Asia theater of operations since 1990. In addition, those who served in Afghanistan, Djibouti, Syria, and Uzbekistan since Sept. 19, 2001, are also eligible for this connection. Veterans must have been ill within ten years of their active service.