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What Are Burn Pits?

Burn pits are a common waste disposal method mainly used by the US military outside of the US Basically, it’s an open-air area used to burn solid waste on a large scale. Types of trash burned can range from chemicals and human waste to food scraps and rubber, among other things.

The smoke and fumes from the pits can be toxic. Exposure to the pits can cause short-term and long-term health problems. It can be worse if you have preexisting breathing problems like asthma or other lung and heart conditions.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates around 3.5 million US military members could have been exposed to burn pits.

Where Are Burn Pits Used?

The US military usually creates burn pits in bases outside of the US such as the Middle East, Africa, and some parts of Asia. Seats include:

  • Iraq
  • Afghanistan
  • Kuwait
  • saudi arabia
  • Bahrain
  • Djibouti
  • Oman
  • Qatar
  • United Arab Emirates
  • Uzbekistan
  • Syria

Burn pits are also created on large water bodies. This includes the Persian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea, and the Red Sea.

Which Things Are Burned in Burn Pits?

Burn pits are mainly used to get rid of solid waste. That may include:

  • Chemicals
  • paint
  • medical waste
  • human-waste
  • food waste
  • Metals like aluminum
  • Cans
  • Unexploded ammunition
  • Petroleum
  • Lubricant products
  • Plastics
  • Styrofoam
  • Rubber
  • Wood

Burn Pits and Health Effects

Burning large amounts of waste in an open-air setting can produce a lot more toxic fumes compared with contained burning in an incinerator. The smoke can cause both short-term irritation and long-term health problems.

Short-term health issues are usually temporary and tend to go away when the exposure stops. Symptoms you may have are:

  • Red, irritated eyes
  • Coughing
  • Burning throat
  • itchy skin
  • Rashes
  • Difficulty breathing

Some people exposed to burn pits may develop long-term health issues. The exposure can also worsen certain preexisting conditions like asthma, allergies, rhinitis, and sinusitis.

Veterans have reported several long-term problems that affect:

  • skin
  • eyes
  • Kidney
  • Liver
  • Reproductive system
  • Central nervous system
  • Heart
  • Peripheral nervous system
  • gastrointestinal tract
  • Lungs

Some service members have also reported certain types of cancer among other diseases.

Currently, there isn’t enough research and medical evidence to directly link burn pits to long-term health issues, including cancer. But there are certain risk factors that can increase your likelihood to develop short- or long-term problems.

They include:

  • Types of trash burned in the pit
  • Distance, length of time, and frequency of burn pit exposure
  • Weather and wind direction
  • Other hazardous elements in the air

Burn pits are also bad for the environment. Besides US military personnel, the pollutants from the burn pits also pose a health risk for the local people in the area. They cannot leave as easily as troops can and experience the aftereffects.

Burn Pits Registry

To study the health hazards of burn pit exposure, the VA set up a registry called Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry (AHOBPR) in 2014. The registry is designed to help researchers collect data and better understand potential health effects of burn pits.

You’re eligible to participate in the registry if you were in active military duty in:

  • Specified regions in the Middle East and South West Asia with burn pits after August 2, 1990
  • Afghanistan or Djibouti on or after September 11, 2001

You’re eligible to participate even if you don’t have a health condition or don’t recall being exposed to burn pit toxins. Participation is voluntary and you’ll need to fill out and submit a questionnaire.

Can You Get VA Disability for Burn Pit Exposure?

The VA recognizes that burn pit exposure can cause serious health concerns. If you were exposed to toxins from burn pits, you can file a claim for compensation and benefits.

To be eligible for benefits, there’s no need for burden of proof if you have:

  • One of the 27 possible conditions caused by toxin exposure. This includes asthma, rhinitis, sleep apnea, certain cancers, and other lung problems.
  • Developed one of the listed conditions within 10 years of leaving active military service.

If you aren’t sure of your eligibility, talk to your VA health care provider about it.

What About Backyard Burn Pits?

Burning household trash in your backyard is not similar to military-grade burn pits. It’s also different from recreational fire pits and campfires. Depending on which state or city you live in, it may be illegal to burn some or all types of trash. This includes wastes like paper, plastics, wood trimmings, or food waste that should otherwise be recycled or go to landfills. If you’re caught using burn barrels or open fires to get rid of garbage, you may be fined for the violation.

Backyard burn pits may release dangerous chemicals called dioxins directly into the atmosphere. They can affect air quality and can get into the water supply. Dioxins are harsh chemicals that can cause severe health problems even in low amounts such as heart, lung, skin, and developmental issues, and even cancer. The toxins can affect your loved ones, neighbors, and community at large.

Military Burn Pits: What’s Being Done About Them?

Since 2010, the government is taking steps to protect US service members and reduce the harsh side-effects of burn pit smoke. This includes certain policy changes to better manage burn pits and limit exposure.

New burn pit requirements include:

  • Creating burn pits at downwind locations, far away from military living areas and where civilians live
  • Limiting the size of burn pits
  • Regulating the waste materials that go into burn pits
  • Specifying burn times — 3 hours after sunrise and 3 hours before sunset

More research needs to be done to find alternative strategies to burn pits to minimize financial and health burdens for all involved.

If you’re concerned about burn pit exposure and symptoms, talk to your doctor about it. VA health care offers free medical services to combat veterans for up to 5 years after active duty.

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