Lung Diseases Common Among Vets Exposed To Burn Pits

Posted on Sep 29, 2015

Military personnel who worked at burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan have significantly higher rates of lung diseases like asthma, emphysema and some rare lung disorders, according to a new report from the VA. They also report higher incidences of other health problems like insomnia and high blood pressure.  A database of 28,000 service members reveals that troops who were exposed to multiple dust storms are also prone to suffering from similar medical issues. However, Military Times reports, “They don't appear to have higher rates of cancer when compared with troops who deployed but had little or no such exposure.

VA.org, the VA’s official website, describes burn pits this way: “Burn pits were a common way to get rid of waste at military sites in Iraq and Afghanistan. Waste products in burn pits include, but are not limited to: chemicals, paint, medical and human waste, metal/aluminum cans, munitions and other unexploded ordnance, petroleum and lubricant products, plastics, rubber, wood, and discarded food. Burning waste in open air pits can cause more pollution than controlled burning, such as in an incinerator. Veterans who were closer to burn pit smoke or exposed for longer periods may be at greater risk. Health effects depend on a number of other factors, such as the kind of waste being burned and wind direction.”

The findings on the medical effects of burn pits and dust storms were posted on line by the VA in June and are based on questionnaires filled out by former service members.  Any vet who thinks they have been exposed can open an online account at va.org and complete the detailed questionnaire. So far nearly 46,000 veterans have opened accounts and about 60 percent of those have fully completed the questionnaire as the end of last year, according to the VA.

Military Times reports that “according to the (completed questionnaires), 30 percent of participants who said they were exposed to burn pits say they've been diagnosed with respiratory diseases other than allergies, with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema and chronic bronchitis topping the list. High blood pressure was diagnosed in about one-third of personnel who reported burn-pit exposure and one-third who said they were exposed to dust storms. Those in both the burn pit and the dust storm exposure groups also reported higher rates of insomnia, liver conditions, chronic multisymptom illnesses and decreased physical function, such as walking, running or climbing steps.”

Paul Ciminera, director of VA’s Post-9/11 Era Environmental Health Program, said the latest report provides insight into the illnesses some veterans are experiencing. But he cautioned that the results do not mean that exposure to burn pits or dust caused the diseases.  He called for more study of the issue.

The  burn pit registry is open to service members who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, in Djibouti after Sept. 11, 2001, or in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The questionnaire takes about 40 minutes or longer to complete, the VA says.

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Sean D. Cuddigan
SSA and VA Disability Attorney in Omaha, Nebraska