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Addressing Veterans’ Exposure to Comprehensive Toxics

Dump heap burning with a lot of smokeEvery day our dedicated veterans face issues in their lives, including access to affordable housing, financial stability, mental health, substance abuse issues, and medical health conditions. Often these issues are faced with quiet determination and sometimes invisible suffering. Each veteran is an individual and their journey and challenges are unique to them.

You may have heard about “burn pits” and their health impacts on Veterans. I must admit I didn’t know the full extent until I started to read more about the topic.

What is a burn pit and why is it so serious?

Open-air burn pits are large areas of land that were used as means of waste disposal on American bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Djibouti after September 11, 2001. Items such as plastics, paint, wood, aluminum cans, medical waste, rubber, rotten food, petroleum, lubricants, toxic chemicals, Styrofoam, ammunition, unexploded ordnances, and human waste were burned in these pits, and toxic fumes and harmful chemicals were released into the atmosphere.

Many veterans involved in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) were impacted by burn pits and have since developed serious health conditions from these hazardous exposures. Burn pit victims were sickened in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We cannot forget that Vietnam veterans were exposed to chemical defoliants. You may have heard this herbicide referred to as Agent Orange.  The same deadly chemicals found in the Agent Orange that was sprayed on jungles during the Vietnam War have been released in burn pits on U.S. military bases across Iraq and Afghanistan. 

A partial list of some of the 23 presumptive conditions related to burn pits and oil well fires include:

  • Asthma
  • Cancers of the head, neck, gastrointestinal system, and respiratory system
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (commonly referred to as COPD)
  • Lymphoma cancer

Since cancers are the number one illnesses/diseases faced by Vietnam veterans, it is important to know the most common cancers caused by Agent Orange Exposure:

  • Bladder cancer
  • Chronic B-cell leukemia
  • Hodgkin’s disease
  • Multiple myeloma
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Prostate cancer
  • Respiratory cancers (including lung cancer)
  • Some soft tissue sarcomas

This year, a new law was passed that is perhaps the largest health care and benefit expansion in Veterans Administration (VA) history. The full name is “The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022” and may be referred to as the “Honoring our PACT Act of 2022.”

What does the Honoring our PACT Act of 2022 do?

The law expands and extends eligibility for VA health care for Veterans with toxic exposures and Veterans of Vietnam, Gulf War, and post 9/11 eras. It adds more than 20 new presumptive conditions for burn pits and other toxic exposures, adds more presumptive-exposure locations for Agent Orange and radiation, requires VA to provide a toxic exposure screening to every Veteran enrolled in VA health care, and helps improve research, staff education, and treatment related to toxic exposures.

Since there are no current simple lab tests to check for exposure to burn pit contaminants, it is important to let your health care provider know if you and/or a loved one has a history of potentially hazardous exposures during military service. If so, there is an increased risk of cancer, and your health care provider might advise certain cancer screening tests. Learn more about the PACT Act and VA benefits here.

It will take time for us to truly understand the health impacts of exposure to burn pits; however, as a community, we can work collaboratively to support our Veterans and their families.

Mary Pat O'LearyContributor Mary Pat O’Leary RN, BSN is a senior planner at Aging and Disability Services, Seattle Human Services Department. She thanks Quyen Stevenson, ARNP, Wound and Ostomy Clinic at the Seattle VA, for her contributions to this article and for her compassionate dedication to our veterans.

Posted in Advocacy, Veterans