This article looks at burn pits and their impact on US military personnel and veterans. It will outline what burn pits are, where they have been used, and some of the alternatives. We will then outline the airborne hazards associated with burn pits and the cancers assumed to be caused by them. Finally, we highlight the VA Burn Pit Registry and legislation enacted to protect and help service personnel and veterans.
What are Burn Pits?
Burn pits are areas of military bases utilised for the open-air burning of waste. They can/could range in size from a few metres to 10 acres (e.g. Joint Base Balad in Iraq).
Where Have Burn Pits Been Used?
Burn pits have been used in and around the following countries and areas: Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Djibouti, Diego Garcia, Gulf of Aden, Gulf of Oman, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, and the Red Sea.
Hazardous materials are burned in open piles at military bases in the continental US, including the Radford Army Ammunition Plant in Virginia, commonly known as Radford Arsenal. According to the US environmental protection agency (EPA), Radford Arsenal is the single largest polluter in Virginia, discharging approximately 10 million pounds of toxic chemicals in 2020.
While the materials destroyed in overseas burn pits and in the US are not identical, they do release many of the same harmful emissions: acidic gases, toxic metals, dioxins, furans, volatile organic compounds, fine particulate matter, and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
Are There Alternatives to Burn Pits?
The US military recognises four alternatives to burn pits:
- Landfill; and
- Tactical burial.
Airborne Hazards Associated with Burn Pits?
Open-air burning has been a common method of disposing of waste for the US military and has included:
- Plastic (including water bottles);
- Human and medical waste;
- Chemicals and paints;
- Metal, rubber and wood;
- Munitions (including unexploded ordnance);
- Food waste;
- Petroleum products and lubricants;
- Shipping materials;
- Electronic waste; and
- Other material that may emit toxic aerial compounds.
So, not only do burn pits increase the risk of fire, they can also produce noxious fumes which service personnel may inhale. The colour of the smoke associated with burn pits could be blue, black, yellow, and/or orange depending on the waste being burned. Personnel in bases with burn pits have reported a variety of symptoms including respiratory difficulties and headaches.
Burn pits affect not only service personnel on base, but also civilians who may live and work close to the area, such as Radford Arsenal.
In his 2022 State of the Union speech, the US President highlighted the dangers US personnel faced overseas “Breathing in toxic smoke from burn pits.”
The Department of Defence (DOD) has estimated nearly 3.5 million troops from recent wars may have suffered enough exposure to the smoke from burn pits to cause health problems. Numerous studies and reports have suggested links between the poor air quality and rare cancers in increasing numbers among veterans due to burn pits.
Burn Pits and Cancer Risks?
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recently added nine respiratory cancers to the list of illnesses it assumes are caused by exposure to burn pits, meaning veterans with those cancers will have an easier time getting benefits.
The full range of ‘presumptive conditions’ associated with burn pits can be found here.
Short- and Longer-Term Symptoms/Conditions
Exposure to smoke from burn pits may lead to a range of short-term symptoms including:
- Irritation and burning of eyes or throat;
- Breathing difficulties; and/or
- Skin itching or rashes.
These symptoms will generally resolve when exposure ends, however close range or prolonged exposure may lead to greater risk of longer-term health conditions.
VA Burn Pit Registry
The VA Burn Pit Registry – officially the Veterans Affairs Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry – was established in 2014 to gather information on service personnel and veterans. It did this via a questionnaire, and between 2014 and 2019 over 180,000 completed it.
A range of legislation has been enacted in regards to burn pits, and includes:
- 2009: Military Personnel War Zone Toxic Exposure Prevention Act.
- 2013: National Burn Pit Registry signed into law as part of the Dignified Burial and Veterans’ Benefit Improvement Act of 2012.
- 2018: Helping Vets Exposed to Burn Pits Act.
- 2022: The Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act.
If you are an active duty member of the US military or a veteran you may have been exposed to smoke from burn pits. There are a variety of symptoms you may have experienced, which may be short or long term in duration, depending on your exposure. Previously, veterans had to ‘battle’ to gain recognition and help from the DOD and VA, but legislation has now made it easier with presumptive conditions.
If you have been exposed to smoke from burn pits and your health has suffered make sure to register with the VA and claim the benefits you are entitled to.