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Exposure to Burn Pits

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) recently issued a decision awarding medical benefits to Veronica Landry, a KBR contractor who worked at Mosul Air Force Base in Iraq.  Landry suffered from lung disease related to her daily exposure to “burn pits” while in Iraq.

Burn pits are a common way to dispose of garbage and trash on military bases, but there have been reports of everything from toxins, to hazmat materials also being disposed of in the burn pits. More and more service members are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan reporting adverse health effects that may be tied to the burn pits.

In her DOL case, Landry testified that,

“The burn pit was a huge area that was dug out of the ground that they just burned everything, everything from tires – you know when tires are being burned, because the smoke was black, just really black – vehicle parts, air conditioner parts, hazardous materials, until we had a new HSE, Health Safety Environmental Officer who came in and started separating the hazmat out the best he could.  They were just throwing all the hazmat stuff in there – we’re talking paint thinner, whatever, it could be any kind of, you know, hazardous materials – even ammunition.  We spent hours in the bunker at a time, because there was ammunition just going off everywhere.”

Landry’s employer’s insurance refused to cover her medical expenses related to the various ailments and symptoms that plagued her after Iraq.  As a private employee, Landry is not able to avail herself of the Veterans Administration. Instead, Landry sought assistance from DOL’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs.

Veterans and service members who have raised awareness about burn pits and the impact they have on the soldiers and workers who live and work adjacent to the pits are celebrating DOL’s decision. The decision is the first from a government agency to link exposure to burn pits to adverse health effects. It also holds the employer accountable to provide health coverage to workers suffering adverse health effects as a result of exposure to burn pits, which may have implications for servicemembers and veterans who have been exposed to burn pits while deployed.

Last year, after receiving pressure from veterans and service members concerned about exposure to burn pits, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs created a Burn Pit Registry for veterans and service members to document their exposure and report health concerns. In total, 124,331 veterans and service members have submitted the questionnaire. The VA however has not determined whether exposure to burn pits will lead to long-term health problems. In the interim, the veterans may file a claim for disability compensation for health problems they believe are related to exposure to burn pits during military service, and the VA will make decisions on these claims on a case-by-case basis.