Veterans deserve better than Congress’s collective shrug on burn pits

Once again, lawmakers have failed to pass legislation that would provide health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits overseas.

I’ve been collecting samples from veterans’ lungs via biopsies since 2010. These particles come from burn pits, which are exactly what you think they are: holes in the ground used to burn stuff. It does matter what that “stuff” is.

Throughout Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, government contractors burned one million pounds per day of, “batteries, medical waste, amputated body parts, plastics, ammunition, human waste, animal carcasses, rubber chemicals, [and] more.” Those components were improperly burned with jet fuel, as opposed to being disposed of properly in incinerators and at extremely high temperatures.

We call these “dust samples,” but that may be a misnomer because they contain metals like titanium, iron and copper. Experience has shown me that these sharp, black particles are more typically found in the lungs of firefighters, not young, healthy soldiers with uncomplicated medical histories — and they’ve had a disastrous impact on the health of too many of our veterans. It has caused more than 12,500 veterans to suffer from a range of conditions between 2007 and 2020.

Luckier veterans reported rhinitis and sinusitis. Others experienced chronic pain, post-traumatic stress, injuries to their gastrointestinal and cardiovascular systems, pulmonary diseases, neurological disorders or rare respiratory cancers (including nine that the Department of Veterans Affairs recently added to its list of military service disabilities).

There had been overwhelming bipartisan support for an expansion of the benefits that veterans can claim because of their burn pit exposure, but political wrangling continues as veterans’ health declines. There is little medical mystery here, but denials of the cause of their conditions, denials of benefits and the continued use of burn pits prolong their pain.

One suffering veteran is Army Captain Le Roy Torres, who spent 23 years in the United States Army, including two years in Balad, Iraq, where American forces operated more than 250 burn pits, burning about 140 tons of waste daily. When he returned home to Texas as a state trooper, Torres suffered from complications from illnesses caused by toxic burn pit fumes. He faced constrictive bronchiolitis and toxic brain injury, which cost him both his health and his livelihood.

Torres’ wife, Rosie, worked with the Department of Veteran Affairs; that didn’t speed his care. His medical attention was delayed and ineffective and his health benefits were denied. So, the Torres family went their own way, founding Burn Pits 360, an advocacy group that ensures other veterans wouldn’t have to navigate that labyrinth of suffering and denial. I serve as a member of Burn Pits 360’s scientific advisory board.

It seemed as if the Military Personnel War Zone Toxic Exposure Prevention Act might have offered families hope to the Torres family, and others, in 2009. The bill called on the secretary of defense, “to establish a medical surveillance system to identify members of the Armed Forces exposed to chemical hazards resulting from the disposal of waste in Iraq and Afghanistan, to prohibit the disposal of waste by the Armed Forces in a manner that would produce dangerous levels of toxins, and for other purposes.” 

It didn’t pass.

Burn Pits 360 didn’t wait for the government. In 2010, it created its own registry to record the names of those who served and passed away from toxic injury illnesses. Three times since 2009, my colleagues and I have testified before government committees about the danger and effects of burn pits, while still more veterans became disabled from these toxic exposures.

Twelve years later, it seemed we were approaching full government support. President Joseph Biden has pledged to sign the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act of 2022 (PACT Act), which the White House describes as, “the largest single bill in American history to address our service members’ exposure to burn pits and other toxic substances.” 

The bill would ensure “access to health care and disability benefits for veterans harmed by certain toxic exposures, whether in the jungles of Vietnam or the mountains of Afghanistan.” It would also “let the Department of Veterans Affairs move more quickly and comprehensively in the future to determine if illnesses are related to military service” and “offer critical support to survivors who were harmed by exposures.”

It doesn’t feel as if “more quickly” will come soon. The timeline to help our veterans has been dangerously plodding. Just ask veterans from the Vietnam Conflict cited in the White House statement, who were exposed to Agent Orange during their service.

Between June 2014 and December 2020, more than 220,000 veterans and active duty service members volunteered to complete the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry (AHOBPR) survey. Of those, 32.5 percent saw a health care provider during their deployment for respiratory symptoms due to air quality. 

They need and deserve our urgent support. We should be ready, now, to serve them, just as they selflessly served us.  

Anthony Szema, MD is director of the Northwell Health International Center of Excellence in Deployment Health and Medical Geosciences and an investigator at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research