Burn Pits and VA Disability

Updated: November 9, 2022

Table of Contents

    Editor’s Note: In a June 6, 2022 email to veterans, the VA said it would begin contacting National Guard and reserve service members to schedule their part 2 Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry exam. The VA said active-duty and activated National Guard and reserve service members must reach out to their military treatment facility to schedule their exams. Statutory regulations prevent the VA from performing these exams on active-duty military members.

    If you deployed in the past 20 years, your exposure to smoke from burning trash, dust and other fine particulates might qualify you for Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits. In 2021, the VA established presumptive service connection for certain respiratory illnesses, giving more service members access to VA benefits without having to prove their health conditions resulted from military service.

    The presumption of service connection applies to certain illnesses affecting military members who served:

    • In and near Iraq after 1990
    • In and around Afghanistan after 2001
    • In and around Djibouti after 2001.

    Read on to see what conditions qualify under these new rules and how to sign up for the Airborne Hazards and Burn Pit Registry.

    The PACT Act

    On Aug. 2, 2022, the Senate passed the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022. The PACT Act bolsters benefits provided to service members experiencing health conditions as a result of their service, including those related to burn pit exposure.

    According to a statement by Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), who chairs the Senate Armed Forces Committee, the PACT Act provides:

    • Expanded medical care for 3.5 million post-9/11 veterans exposed to toxic substances
    • 23 new presumptive service-connected conditions for burn pit exposures in addition to asthma, sinusitis and rhinitis
    • Expanded list of presumptive service-connected locations for Agent Orange exposures, including Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa and Johnston Atoll
    • Additional resources to the VA for claims processing and health facilities

    The VA has updated its website to include information about the new PACT Act.

    Conditions Covered Under the PACT Act

    Under the PACT Act, the VA now presumes more conditions to be service-related if they occurred after a qualifying period of service.

    For post 9-11 and Gulf War veterans, the VA now presumes service connection for the following conditions:

    • Brain cancer
    • Gastrointestinal cancer of any type
    • Glioblastoma
    • Head cancer of any type
    • Kidney cancer
    • Lymphatic cancer of any type
    • Lymphoma of any type
    • Melanoma
    • Neck cancer
    • Pancreatic cancer
    • Reproductive cancer of any type
    • Respiratory (breathing-related) cancer of any type
    • Asthma that was diagnosed after service
    • Chronic bronchitis
    • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
    • Chronic rhinitis
    • Chronic sinusitis
    • Constrictive bronchiolitis or obliterative bronchiolitis
    • Emphysema
    • Granulomatous disease
    • Interstitial lung disease (ILD)
    • Pleuritis
    • Pulmonary fibrosis
    • Sarcoidosis

    You may be eligible for VA health care and disability compensation if you served during a qualifying period and contracted one of these illnesses. Consider reapplying for benefits if the VA previously denied your claim for one of these conditions.

    What Is a Military Burn Pit?

    The VA defines a burn pit as “an area of land used for the open-air combustion of trash and other solid waste products.”

    According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), these were common in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other areas of operation in Southwest Asia. Smoke and fumes generated from trash-burning create airborne hazards that can affect troops living and working nearby.

    Because of these airborne hazards, the Department of Defense (DOD) is closing all of its open-air burn pits.

    When Are Burn Pits Used?

    The military used burn pits to incinerate trash, especially the kind they didn’t want to fall into enemy hands. During combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, military members burned documents, equipment and even discarded uniforms, often dousing the items with gasoline or diesel fuel to make them more flammable.

    According to the VA, the military also used Iraq burn pits and Afghanistan burn pits for:

    • Chemicals, including paint
    • Medical and human waste
    • Aluminum and other metal cans
    • Munitions and unexploded ordnance
    • Petroleum and lubricant products
    • Plastics, rubber, wood and food waste

    Why Are Burn Pits Dangerous?

    According to the VA, service members who lived or worked in or near toxic burn pits can have an increased risk of long-term health problems.

    While the VA is still studying how some health problems correlate with burn pit exposure, it presumes asthma, rhinitis, and sinusitis to be service-related when veterans who were exposed to burn pits develop the illnesses within ten years of separating from the military.

    What Are Symptoms of Burn Pit Exposure?

    According to the VA, burn pit exposure symptoms can include:

    • Burning of eyes and throat
    • Coughing
    • Breathing difficulties
    • Skin issues and rashes

    What Is the VA Burn Pit Registry?

    The VA established the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry in 2014 to collect data on service members who might have been exposed to airborne hazards while living or working around burn pits in the Middle East.

    The VA encourages all eligible veterans to participate in the burn bit registry, even those who have not experienced symptoms of exposure. According to the VA, maximum participation in the registry helps the VA provide better care to veterans, presumably by providing additional data to help them analyze the issues.

    Who Is Eligible for the VA Burn Pit Registry?

    Currently, the VA limits eligibility for the burn pit registry to those who have deployed to the following areas:

    • Southwest Asia theater of operations after Aug. 2, 1990
    • Afghanistan, Djibouti, Syria or Uzbekistan after Sept. 19, 2001

    According to the VA, the Southwest Asia theater of operations includes:

    • Iraq
    • Kuwait
    • Saudi Arabia
    • The neutral zone between Iraq and Saudi Arabia
    • Bahrain
    • Qatar
    • The United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.)
    • Oman
    • Gulf of Aden
    • Gulf of Oman
    • Waters of the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea
    • The airspace above these locations

    If you believe you have suffered or are concerned about illness related to burn pits, you should sign up for the burn pit registry.

    After filling out the information, you can request access to a VA Health Coordinator to help answer questions. You can also participate in an optional VA burn pit registry exam.

    Is the Registry Only for Burn Pits?

    Even if you were never near a burn pit but deployed to one of the above locations, you should consider adding yourself to the registry. According to the VA, toxic exposures in these areas also include “sand, dust, pollution, and other airborne hazards.”

    These tiny particulates can be in the form of acid, chemicals, metals, soils and dust. They can cause or exacerbate the same respiratory symptoms as burn pits, including asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis. If you deployed to the qualified areas listed above, the VA will presume these conditions to be service-related.

    How to Add Yourself to the Burn Pit Registry

    You can register the periods of service during which you were exposed to burn pits or other airborne hazards in the Airborne Hazards and Burn Pit Registry. The website can be challenging to access and requires patience to use, especially when updating your deployment history, but it’s worth entering your information.

    You need a DS Level II (Premium) account to log into the registry. If you don’t have a DS Level II account, follow these instructions to get one.

    Eligible Deployment History

    After you update your contact information, fill out your deployment history. The form comes pre-populated with dates based on the VA Defense Information Repository (VADIR) and other sources.

    Look at these pre-populated dates carefully. If they don’t correspond to the actual dates of your deployments, click “No” where it asks if this information is correct and enter the correct dates.

    For each segment of each deployment, you will have to enter the following information:

    • Branch
    • Begin date
    • End date
    • Conflict
    • Base
    • Country

    The registry will ask you questions about your environmental exposures for each service period, including exposures to airborne toxins and open sewage. It can be tedious to fill out, but it’s worth taking your time to ensure you properly document these exposures.

    You will also answer general occupational hazards questions for the duration of your deployment service, including questions about being exposed to IEDs, carrying out unit pesticide duties construction and other occupational exposure questions.

    Next, you’ll answer questions on your exposure to dust storms and days with poor air quality. You don’t have to remember specific dates, just monthly averages of days you experienced significantly adverse airborne hazards.

    The registry will prompt you to answer these questions for each qualifying deployment. You don’t have to answer these questions for deployments or stops of less than ten days.

    Symptoms and Medical History

    In the next section, you’ll answer questions about current health issues related to your occupational exposure. These include cardiovascular, breathing, and other health issues.

    You may want to look at your health records before filling out this section to familiarize yourself with symptoms occurring after these deployments that you may have forgotten.

    Places You’ve Lived

    Next, you’ll fill out the information on the places you’ve lived in your lifetime. You don’t have to fill out your entire residential history, but the form does ask you for information on where you’ve lived the longest.

    These questions help the VA distinguish between exposures during military service and exposures you may have experienced while living in other places. Living in significantly polluted or dusty environments may have exacerbated issues caused by your deployment exposures.

    Work History

    Next, you’ll answer questions about your work history outside the military. These questions help the VA isolate symptoms that could have occurred after occupational exposures outside your military service.

    Hobbies

    In the final section, you will answer questions about your hobbies. Again, these questions aim to help the VA determine if exposures outside of the military might have caused your symptoms.

    For example, woodworking and other hobbies can expose you to fine particulate matter.

    Can You Get VA Disability for Burn Pits?

    You can receive VA disability benefits if your sinusitis, asthma or rhinitis is severe enough. These benefits are not only for burn pit compensation but also for exposure to dust and other airborne hazards during deployments to qualified areas, including Southwest Asia and Afghanistan.

    The VA rates illnesses and injuries using its Schedule for Rating Disabilities. The Schedule covers disabilities of the respiratory system in Appendices 4.96 and 4.97, which show the criteria the VA uses to determine the percent of disability ratings you could receive for different respiratory diseases.

    The rating criteria for respiratory disabilities include factors like the type and frequency of your symptoms.

    How to Apply for VA Disability for Burn Pit Exposure

    Adding yourself to the Airborne Hazards and Burn Pit Registry and undergoing the VA optional exam doesn’t automatically entitle you to VA benefits.

    To file a VA claim for compensation for any medical condition – including those presumed to be service-connected under the new ruling – burn pit victims or those exposed to airborne hazards during qualified deployments can check out our guide on how to file a VA disability claim.

    Applying for VA Health Benefits

    Similarly, adding yourself to the registry and filing a VA claim does not automatically enroll you in VA health benefits. Check out our guide on applying for VA medical care and benefits.

    Written by Teresa Tennyson

    Teresa Tennyson is a journalist for Veteran.com. She is a retired army officer who served in several countries in the Middle East. Tennyson has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Arizona State University and a master’s degree in business administration with a finance certificate from UCLA.

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