Burn Pits and Lung Disease

Burn Pits and Lung Disease

Many U.S. military Veterans deployed overseas in the last two decades were exposed to the toxic air from burn pits, which are large waste disposal sites used at every military forward operating base (FOB). Smoke from the mix of chemicals burning in the pits blew across military posts and into living areas and has been linked to a number of lung diseases in Veterans.

The Veterans Administration admits that toxins in burn-pit smoke may have affected Veterans’ respiratory systems, as well as other organs, but insists that “research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits.” The VA does not automatically pay disability benefits to Veterans for the harmful effects of exposure to burn pits. But a Veteran may obtain disability benefits if he or she can demonstrate exposure to burn pits while deployed overseas and provide evidence that the burn pit exposure is the cause of their lung disease.

If you are a Veteran and your VA disability claim related to burn pit exposure and lung disease has been denied, don’t stop fighting for compensation. Our attorneys at Berry Law work with Veterans across the country to appeal denied VA claims and increase disability ratings. Our attorneys, most of whom are military Veterans, will work to ensure that you are receiving the full VA disability benefits you deserve for burn pit exposure in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia or elsewhere in the Southwest Asia theater of operations.

If you are a U.S. military Veteran who has disabilities not accounted for in your current VA rating, contact Berry Law for assistance ASAP.

What Are Burn Pits?

If you have served at a military FOB since 9/11, you are familiar with burn pits. These open waste demolition sites were located within camp perimeters so servicemembers were not exposed to hostile fire while disposing waste.

In burn pits, Service members assigned the duty used jet fuel (JP-8) to ignite and burn waste products that included:

  • Chemicals
  • Discarded food
  • Human waste
  • Medical waste
  • Metal/aluminum cans
  • Munitions and other unexploded ordnance
  • Paint
  • Petroleum and lubricant products
  • Plastics
  • Rubber
  • Wood

Many of the waste products above, if not already toxic, emit toxins when they burn. Toxic smoke from the mix of chemicals and materials burning in the pits blew across military bases and into living areas.

One Veterans’ advocacy group has identified nearly 300 sites worldwide on its list of open burn pits at military installations or operations.

The U.S. Army Public Health Command says in a fact sheet about the burn pit at Iraq’s Joint Base Balad, also known as Logistic Support Area (LSA) Anaconda, that “Open burning of solid waste on Joint Base Balad generated complaints and health concerns amongst sservicemembers from 2003 until open burning ceased in 2009.”

In its fact sheet about the burn pit at Joint Base Balad, the VA says Veterans who were closer to burn pit smoke or exposed for longer periods may be at greater risk of illness. Health effects depend on a number of other factors, such as the kind of waste being burned and wind direction.

Did Military Burn Pits Cause Lung Disease?

The VA has established the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit (AH&OBP) Registry to gather information about the health issues experienced by Veterans and Service members who were exposed to airborne hazards from burn pits and dust storms. If you were exposed to burn pits, make sure you register at the link above.

Registry participation is open to any Veteran or Active Duty Service member who served in the Southwest Asia theater of operations after August 2, 1990, or in Afghanistan or Djibouti, Somalia, after September 11, 2001. That includes an estimated 3.5 million Veterans.

In 2015, the VA released Report on Data from the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit (AH&OBP) Registry. In it, 62 percent of Registry participants who answered the study’s survey said they worked at a burn pit on at least one of their deployments. Another 33 percent said they were near a burn pit on at least one deployment, although they did not work at the burn pit.

Among the participants in the registry,

  • 30% reported having been diagnosed with a respiratory condition other than allergies to pollen, dust, or animals.
  • 16% reported having been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic bronchitis, or emphysema
  • 15% reported having been diagnosed with asthma
  • 1% reported a diagnosis of constrictive bronchiolitis
  • Less than 1% reported a diagnosis of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis

Types of Respiratory Disease

Veterans who worked at burn pits were more likely to report COPD, chronic bronchitis, or emphysema than those who did not. Specifically, 17% of Veterans whose duties included a burn pit reported COPD, chronic bronchitis, or emphysema compared to 13% of those with exposure but no duties and 11% of those with no exposure.

Emphysema—Emphysema is a lung disease that is characterized by shortness of breath and wheezing, particularly during physical activity. Emphysema involves damage to the tiny air sacs in the lungs as a result of long-term exposure to irritants such as smoke, chemical fumes and air pollution. Some people with emphysema need supplemental oxygen.

Chronic Bronchitis—Chronic bronchitis involves irritation and inflammation of the bronchial tubes that carry air to the lungs. When the airways are irritated, thick mucus forms and makes it harder to breath and get air in your lungs. It commonly involves a persistent cough with mucus that lasts for months. People who have been exposed for an extended period of time to chemical fumes, smoke, dust and other irritants may develop chronic bronchitis.

COPD—Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are conditions that commonly contribute to COPD, which is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that obstructs airflow to the lungs. COPD is typically caused by long-term exposure to irritating gases and fine particles contained in smoke, toxic fumes or air pollution. The symptoms of COPD may not appear until after significant damage has occurred. COPD is a disease that gradually gets worse, but it is treatable.

Court Rules that Burn Pits Caused Lung Damage

In 2018, an Administrative Law Judge for the U.S. Department of Labor ruled that open-air burn pits are connected to lung disease. The case was brought by Veronica Landry, who worked as a morale, welfare, and recreation (MWR) specialist at two forward operating bases in Mosul, Iraq. From March 2004 until February 2005, she was exposed to smoke from the burn pits every day, according to her testimony.

As part of her claim for workers’ compensation, Landry said she was diagnosed with “deployment-related bronchiolitis” in August 2016. At the hearing, she credibly testified that her lung disease had been shown by biopsy to be related to her exposure to the burn pits, according to the court.

The court awarded her workers’ compensation medical benefits for “all past, present, and future reasonable and necessary medical treatment,” saying she was “entitled to medical expenses for any treatment she shows is reasonable and necessary for her work-related conditions.”

In September 2020, a consensus study report published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, titled Respiratory Health Effects of Airborne Hazards Exposures in the Southwest Asia Theater of Military Operations,reviewed 27 respiratory health outcomes, including respiratory cancers, asthma, chronic bronchitis, sinusitis, and constrictive bronchiolitis.

The evidence for respiratory symptoms — which included chronic persistent cough, shortness of breath, and wheezing — met the criteria for limited or suggestive evidence of an association for Veterans who served in military operations in the Southwest Asia Theater of Military Operations since 1990.

The study’s authors said existing studies about respiratory health problems among Veterans deployed to Southwest Asia have several limitations, and that new approaches – additional studies – are needed to better answer whether respiratory health issues are associated with these deployments.

Add to Your VA Benefits for Burn Pit Exposure Lung Disease

Veterans’ monthly disability benefits are based on the severity of a Veteran’s service-connected injury or illness. A VA claims evaluator assigns the Veteran a disability rating depicted in 10 percent increments according to evidence in the Veteran’s claim, such as from service and medical records. A 100% disability rating indicates total disability, which provides the most basic monthly compensation paid to disabled veterans.

The VA has established a presumptive service connection for certain medical conditions or exposures, some of which result in a designated disability rating of 100%. However, disability claims based on lung diseases caused by burn pit exposure are judged on a case-by-case basis.

A Veteran may appeal a denied claim, and a disabled Veteran already receiving benefits may request a review of their disability rating at any time. If it has been more than a year since the VA has granted the Veteran disability benefits, the Veteran may submit a standard request for reevaluation, which only requires completing a form to release medical records. However, a Veteran could also have their rating reduced at a reevaluation.

If it has been less than 12 months since the VA has granted benefits, the request for a new disability rating is an appeal of the claim decision. In an appeal, the VA is required to consider medical records as submitted but may also require the Veteran to undergo a Compensation and Pension (C&P) medical exam.

In an appeal or disability rating review, the VA must accept as valid evidence medical records from a VA or military hospital that reflect treatment or hospitalization, or records from private or public medical facilities that indicate the Veteran’s condition has grown worse.

The attorneys at Berry Law can help you file an appeal with the VA or seek an increase in your disability rating if your respiratory condition has worsened and can be connected to burn pit exposure. While the VA does not automatically agree that a Veteran’s lung disease is service-connected to burn pits, it does not automatically dismiss service connection either. Our experienced attorneys can help you put together a persuasive appeal.

Contact Our VA Disability Attorneys

Berry Law has extensive experience helping Veterans obtain reevaluations and file appeals that ultimately increase their VA disability ratings. We are Veterans helping Veterans. Let us review your medical records and your military service history to see how we can assist you.

We know the VA rules and regulations for establishing disability ratings, and we have studied the evidence indicating that Veterans have suffered lung disease from exposure to burn pits. You served your country. We want to make the system work for you.

We do not accept legal fees from disabled Veterans unless we recover benefits for them. Contact us today for a free review of your claim with no strings attached. Don’t go to battle alone. Call Berry Law today.

Berry Law

The attorneys at Berry Law are dedicated to helping injured Veterans. With extensive experience working with VA disability claims, Berry Law can help you with your disability appeals.

This material is for informational purposes only. It does not create an attorney-client relationship between the Firm and the reader, and does not constitute legal advice. Legal advice must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case, and the contents of this blog are not a substitute for legal counsel.

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