Toxic burn pits put the health of US veterans at risk. Can a new law help?

·7 min read
<span>Photograph: Us Air Force/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Us Air Force/Reuters

Joe Biden visited Texas last week. But it was no ordinary campaigning trip to a state Democrats hungrily eye as a target to flip from red to blue.

Instead the US president was speaking about an issue with personal resonance: burn pits. That is the catch-all term used to describe how American soldiers in foreign wars were exposed to toxic chemicals from incinerated military waste that years later causes debilitating disease and death to thousands of veterans.

One of those victims, Biden believes, could be his son Beau. In his recent State of the Union address, Biden talked about burn pits – excavations filled with any and all waste from a deployment and set aflame with jet fuel or diesel – saying exposure could have led to the death of Beau, who served a year-long tour of duty in Iraq and later died of brain cancer.

“When they came home, many of the world’s fittest and best-trained warriors in the world were never the same. Headaches. Numbness. Dizziness. A cancer that would put them in a flag-draped coffin. I know,” Biden said.

In Texas, Biden met with veterans, including one who was stationed near a pit and later had six weeks of treatment and chemotherapy, and said that access to healthcare and benefits for affected veterans should be expanded. “They shouldn’t have to ask for a damn thing,” Biden said. “It should be, ‘I’ve got a problem’ and we should say, How can I help?’”

The Department of Defense estimates that roughly 3.5 million service members could have been exposed to burn pits during America’s wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan. A legislative battle is now under way to require the Department of Veterans Affairs to expand its recognition of the health consequences of burn pit exposure. Biden said he’d sign it, and it is nearing Senate approval after passing the House two weeks ago.

But the experience of veterans has been much like those American soldiers returning from Vietnam after being exposed to the toxic defoliant Agent Orange and began reporting symptoms, including various types of cancer. They face disbelief and skepticism.

It took more than two decades for Congress to pass the 1991 Agent Orange Act and another 30 years to pass the Veterans Agent Orange Exposure Equity Act, which shifted the burden from veterans having to prove exposure to the presumption of exposure to the herbicide.

“Many Afghanistan and Iraq veterans who were exposed to burn pits are now starting to develop illnesses that they believe are linked to these types of exposure,” said Aleks Morosky, deputy director with the Wounded Warrior project. “What we know is that many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who were exposed are now getting sick and dying.”

Morosky, who served two tours in Iraq, says that soldiers on active combat duty were primarily concerned with enemy fire and roadside bombs. “The fumes from a burn pit may be a nuisance but it’s not the most dangerous thing, front of mind, when you’re over there. It’s only years later that we’ve come to realize how damaging this stuff might have been.”

During the Gulf war of 1990-91 returning soldiers reported symptoms including fatigue, headaches, joint pain, indigestion, insomnia, dizziness and respiratory disorders that became known collectively as Gulf war syndrome. Among the possible causes was chemical warfare agents, particularly nerve gas, or pyridostigmine bromide, which was given as a preventive measure against exposure to chemical weapons.

But Gulf war syndrome, like the symptoms of Agent Orange exposure and burn pit exposure, can produce multifaceted conditions that lack uniformity and are not easily linked in medical terms to a set of symptoms.

Under the Agent Orange Act, says Morosky, “there was a scientific framework in place that triggers determinations by the VA and a list of conditions that are presumed to be connected to service in an area of known exposure. We feel we need an Agent Orange Act for the 21st century.”

But today it remains difficult for individual veterans to prove the exposure to burn pits caused their health problems, and in most cases, the VA doesn’t consider exposure a service-related condition. The Department of Veterans Affairs has denied about 75% of veterans’ burn pit claims.

Last year the VA established a presumption of service connection for asthma, sinusitis and rhinitis based on exposure to fine particulate matter for veterans who served any time after August 1990 in the south-west Asia theater of operations, as well as Afghanistan, Syria, Djibouti or Uzbekistan on or after 19 September 2001. As of this month 30,000 had filed claims, with 73% of 18,105 processed claims being granted so far.

In a statement to the Guardian, a VA spokesperson said: “While there are differences between herbicide agents, such as Agent Orange, used during the Vietnam war, and airborne hazards in the Gulf war region, VA takes seriously any claim for disability due to military environmental exposure.” It continued: “The VA will continue to study the long-term health effects from airborne hazards in the Gulf war region.”

Support for veterans has come from Biden, who announced that the VA will take new steps to care for veterans diagnosed with nine cancers related to chemical exposure, and from TV political satirist Jon Stewart, who appeared on Capitol Hill last week to promote the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2021.

Stewart warned lawmakers not to stall the bill. “Fuck that,” he said.

Last year he told NBC: “I would challenge any congressperson who says, ‘Well, we’re going to wait for the science to be settled,’ to dig a 100-yard pit in the middle of a town where your constituents live, and burn everything in that town with jet fuel. And then come and tell me that, ‘Yeah, they’re cool with it, because there’s a lot of confusion about whether or not the science is settled that this is harmful to your health.’”

Biden’s son Beau was a major in a Delaware army national guard unit that deployed to Iraq in 2008. He was later named Delaware attorney general before being diagnosed with brain cancer in 2013. He died two years later at age 46.

“We don’t know for sure if a burn pit was the cause of his brain cancer, or the diseases of so many of our troops,” Biden said in Texas. “But I’m committed to finding out everything we can.”

In a response, the VA said: “Any veteran who believes he or she has a disability related to military service would be encouraged to file a claim.”

One soldier who fell sick after serving in Iraq is 54-year-old army veteran Andrew Myatt, who completed several tours in the Middle East. During a routine physical three years ago, he was referred to an oncologist who diagnosed an aggressive form of adult leukemia. After three years of chemotherapy treatments the cancer is in remission.

But the VA has denied Myatt’s eligibility. “I served with honor so it was frustrating to be told, in effect, you’re old and broken and we don’t need you,” he said. “You have to prove you were exposed and that exposure caused what you have.”

Myatt points out that the burn pit exposure is not necessarily a war zone issue. The military uses burn pits to dispose of material on foreign training exercises as well. According to a 2019 report from the defense department, there were nine active military burn pits in the Middle East as of 2018.

A 2015 report from a Pentagon inspector general said it was “indefensible” that military personnel were “put at further risk from the potentially harmful emissions” from the use of burn pits.

Myatt reasons that all military engagements come with lessons of what could have been done better. For his generation, it’s the burn pits or other toxic exposure-related illnesses.

“We’d like to see the legislation go through,” he said. “There are a lot of things service members are coming down with – leukemia, skin cancer, lung cancer, brain tumors – that haven’t been seen as cause-and-effect of our exposure while serving our government in a wartime fashion.”