Many veterans and military personnel who served in the Southwest Asia theater of operations, particularly during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, worked near open-air burn pits. These burn pits were used to dispose of waste materials, some of which were potentially toxic. The waste products burned in the pits included plastic, petroleum, paint, oil, appliances, medical and human waste, and even body parts. Many people subjected to the smoke emitted from these pits are now home and suffer from respiratory and lung smoke

The burn pits created large clouds of thick, black smoke that lingered over the work and sleeping areas of military personnel. Because the pits burned 24 hours a day, soldiers were exposed to the smoke for long periods of time and may now have health issues because of this exposure. It was reported that some bases in Afghanistan and Iraq burned nearly 240 tons of trash each day. Hundreds of veterans have been diagnosed with cancers, neurological disorders, and lung problems—which researchers believe could be connected to the exposure to dust and/or smoke from the burning pits.

The Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry

Although there are many claims by veterans that their respiratory diseases and illnesses are related to exposure to the burn pits, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Department of Defense (DoD) report no evidence of a link between them. However, both agencies continue to study the health of military members and veterans who were exposed to burn pits. In response to the many concerns about possible health issues, Congress forced the VA to create an online registry that cited all burn pit locations. The VA also established the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry—a database of health information about military personnel who were stationed in areas with open-air pits.

If you’re a veteran and want to submit a claim for disability due to burn pit exposure, you don’t need to participate in the registry. The disability application process is separate and not related to the burn pit registry. However, if you believe your respiratory illness or cancer is related to your exposure to burn pit emissions during active duty, you can apply for disability, and the VA makes determinations about these claims on a case-by-case basis. Because obtaining benefits for respiratory illnesses related to burn pits can be complicated, it’s helpful to hire a disability attorney to help you through the application process.

Why Was the Registry Created?

In June 2014, the VA opened the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, available for active military personnel and veterans. The registry was created for two main reasons:

1) To help the VA identify health issues, illnesses, and conditions suffered by military personnel that may be related to burn pit exposure or other airborne hazards—environmental contaminants that can have a negative health impact, including sand, dust, and smoke from burn pits and oil well fires.

2) To help military personnel and veterans be more aware of their health issues that might be related to burn pit exposure.

Participation in the registry is entirely voluntary, and active service personnel and veterans can fill out an online questionnaire identifying and explaining their exposure to burn pits, airborne hazards, and health conditions. The VA maintains this information in a secure database, and the agency may use it for future research studies.

Once military personnel and veterans are in the registry, it helps them in a number of ways, including:

  • Receiving up-to-date information about VA services and ongoing health studies
  • Creating a snapshot of their health to use when discussing medical issues with their doctor
  • Being eligible for a free VA medical evaluation
  • Learning more about the health impact of burn pit and airborne hazards exposure
  • Helping the VA learn more about and monitor illnesses and health conditions that might be related to burn pit exposure

Am I Eligible to Sign Up for the Registry?

To qualify for the registry, you must be a veteran or service member who worked in the following countries, bodies of water, or the airspace above these locations:

  • Djibouti
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Bahrain
  • Gulf of Aden
  • Gulf of Oman
  • Oman Iraq
  • Afghanistan
  • The waters of the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and Arabian Sea
  • Kuwait
  • Qatar
  • United Arab Emirates

We Can Help

If you’re a veteran who worked around burn pits or was exposed to fumes caused by burn pits and you believe your respiratory issues are service related; or you want to discuss the burn pit registry and if your current medical issues make you eligible for disability, contact Cuddigan Law at 402-933-5405. We’re happy to help you.


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