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Saturday, April 28, 2018

Burn Pit Exposure Benefits Coming for Veterans?

We’ve still been hearing quite a bit of confusion from veterans regarding the February ruling on a case that positively linked lung disease to open-air burn pits. 

To be clear, this was a civilian case filed by a civilian contractor against the Labor Department under the US Department of Labor’s Office for Workers’ Compensation Programs and had no direct connection to veterans or the VA at all. 

The civilian contractor had developed lung disease and other ailments after being exposed to burn pits while working at a military base in Iraq, and the judge ruled that there was sufficient evidence to show that the contractor suffers from “deployment-related lung disease.” 

While this might seem to then imply that military members exposed to the same circumstances while deployed in Iraq could also develop the same conditions, the ruling, unfortunately, has no jurisdiction over the VA. 

So what does this mean for military members and veterans who believe that their conditions are related to their burn pit exposure?

For years now, thousands of military and civilian personnel have developed health issues after being exposed to thick clouds of toxic smoke from open-air burn pits at military bases in Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite years of effort by veterans’ advocates to get burn pit exposure added to the VA’s Presumptive List, the VA continues to state on its website that research does not support evidence of long-term health effects from burn pit exposure. 

While the VA does state that the toxins in the smoke from burn pits may affect the eyes, cardiovascular and respiratory systems, internal organs, skin, and gastrointestinal tract, they also state that adverse health effects related to burn pit smoke are affected by many variables, such as the length of exposure, wind speed and direction, and the type of materials being burned, among others. 

Because burn pit exposure is not currently considered service-connected by the VA, thousands of related benefits claims have been and continue to be denied. And this case has not changed that fact, although it does add firepower to the advocates fighting for these affected veterans.

While this case may set a theoretical precedent for future cases, veterans should not expect to see a change at this time. This case was between a civilian employee and a civilian employer, and ruled upon by a judge under the Department of Labor (as opposed to a federal court judge). Therefore, this ruling has no direct effect on military members or the VA nor does it set a legal precedence which would affect the VA in the same way that a federal court ruling would.  

However, veterans’ groups and advocates are hopeful that this ruling will put pressure upon the VA to acknowledge service-connection for these conditions, which could mean a policy change in the future that would allow veterans to receive the care they deserve. 

In the meantime, we strongly encourage affected veterans to join the 130,000 veterans already registered with the VA’s Airborn Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry. Make the VA aware of your case and the effect a policy change would have on your life. You can also write your members of Congress and bring this ruling to their attention, asking them to go to bat for our veterans. The more attention we bring to the problem, the higher the possibility that it may get fixed.