During their deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, many military service members were exposed to a variety of toxic substances as a result of the smoke, fumes and particulates generated from large, open-air burn pits. These burn pits were located on or near military sites to burn trash that may have included large amounts of plastic, tires, chemicals, medical waste and other refuse that likely emitted toxic compounds into the air.
Exposure to these airborne toxins is reported to have caused a variety of health concerns, including cancers, respiratory illness and blood disorders. Former Vice President Joe Biden has linked the death of his son Beau, who died of glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, in 2015. Beau Biden was exposed to hazardous air from burn pits during his National Guard deployment in Iraq in 2009 and during previous work as a civilian lawyer for the U.S. attorney’s office in Kosovo.
President Barack Obama signed into law the Dignified Burial and Other Veterans’ Benefits Improvement Act in January 2013. This law directed the secretary of Veterans Affairs to establish an open burn pit registry for service members serving in the areas of Iraq and Afghanistan who were potentially exposed to toxic byproducts from burning various materials during deployments.
Creation of the burn pit registry has been slow and plagued with problems, but the need for an adequate registry and health surveillance program remains a vital issue.
The revision and integration of a registry in combination with a longitudinal active health surveillance program would create a better understanding of the relationship between airborne toxins created by open-air burn pits and diagnosis of diseases among members of the military who may have been exposed to those toxins. More than three million members of the military may qualify for the registry. So far, only about 140,000 active-service and retired military members have put their names in the burn pit registry.