What are burn pits? How toxic blazes endangered Iraq, Afghanistan military veterans

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The rights of American veterans took center stage last year after a bill to expand health care access for victims of military burn pits first failed – and then succeeded – in passing in the Senate 86-11. The veteran's bill, originally a bipartisan effort, quickly became a lightning rod for partisan aggression and the subject of impassioned verbal sparring.

On one side was comedian Jon Stewart, known for his activism on behalf of 9/11 first responders, and on the other Senator Ted Cruz, who accused Democrats of using a "budgetary trick" to ensure increased spending.

Underscoring the debate is the real subject matter – the military burn pits used throughout the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, now threatening the health of America's former troops.

Here's what you need to know.

What are military burn pits?

According to the Unites States Department of Veterans Affairs, a burn pit is "an area devoted to open-air combustion of trash." Military burn pits were often used for disposal in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What was burned in burn pits?

The burn pits contained waste products such as

  • paint

  • medical and human waste

  • chemicals

  • ammunitions and unexploded artillery

  • food

  • wood

  • rubber

  • aluminum cans

  • Styrofoam

  • plastics

  • petroleum/other lubricants

What is in the veterans burn pit bill?

The bill, officially the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics bill, or the PACT Act, is aimed at providing health care for veterans that were exposed to burn pits during their time in service.

The legislation will no longer require individual veterans to prove that exposure to these pits causes adverse health outcomes. PACT Act will codify 23 respiratory illnesses and cancers as connected to burn pit exposure, and automatically recognize those who served as eligible for the care.

All veterans will nowbe screened at VA medical appointments and 31 new clinics will be built across the country. Additionally, more education and training will be provided on the results of this specific type of toxic exposure.

What are burn pit fumes?

The fumes, or smoke that came up from these military burn pits may have both short and long-term health effects, according to the VA.

The toxins from the fumes can affect many different parts of the body including skin, eyes, respiratory and cardiovascular systems, the gastrointestinal tract, and internal organs.

Why did the burn pit bill not pass initially?

The bill, which started out as a bipartisan effort languished in the Senate after 41 Republican senators blocked it. The Republicans rejected the burn pit bill over a budget dispute.

Senator Ted Cruz, who voted to block the bill, claims the Democrats shifted $400 billion from discretionary to mandatory spending, spending he asserts will be "unrelated."

At the time, Montana Democrat Jon Tester, the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, called the failure to pass the bill "political malpractice."

Why are burn pits used?

Military burn pits were used as a means of waste disposal during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. While some less toxic materials were thrown into the fires, the burn pits were also used to incinerate chemicals, hazardous materials and weaponry.

CNN's Paul Leblanc reported in 2021 that 86% of veterans who served in the aftermath of 9/11 reported exposure to burn pits.

Why are burn pits bad?

According to the VA, burning waste in pits can prove more toxic than in a commercial incinerator that operates a controlled, high-temperature burn.

The open-air allowed soldiers to breathe in the fumes from the burn pits fires, which have now been linked to some cardiovascular and respiratory conditions.

What are the symptoms of burn pit exposure?

The VA sites possible symptoms of burn pit exposure as:

  • Eye irritation/burning

  • Coughing

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Throat irritation

  • Rash

  • Itchy skin

For longer-term health effects, research is ongoing, as some veterans have linked their burn pit exposure to different cancers, respiratory problems and neurological disorders.

What is the Burn Pit Registry?

The VA has created an Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry which veterans are eligible to participate in if they were: "deployed to the Southwest Asia theater of operations or Egypt any time after August 2, 1990 or Afghanistan, Djibouti, Syria, or Uzbekistan on or after September 11, 2001."

The registry is meant to provide more information to the department regarding possible long-term health outcomes.

Are burn pits illegal?

The Department of Defense has not officially banned burn pits, according to the Military Times. Their use is much less common now, however.

In 2009, the U.S. began limiting the use of military burn pits and replacing them with incinerators.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What is a burn pit? How exposure during Iraq war poses health risks