Just 10,588 burn-pit claims have been filed since Sept. 11, 2001, Veterans Affairs said in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from a veterans advocacy group.
But that’s only a fraction of what veterans advocates say they expected to see. Veterans have filed 98,017 claims for “environmental claims” since 9/11, and at least 200,000 people have signed up for VA’s burn-pit registry, according to VA. That means burn-pit claims make up slightly less than 10% of VA’s total number of environmental exposure claims for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
That makes it difficult for experts and researchers to track veterans to look for trends, for legislators to watch so they can properly fund VA and provide legislation for benefits, and for veterans service organizations to learn from as they determine how best to help veterans file claims.
Kerry Baker, who helps veterans appeal VA disability claims and who previously worked for VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration, said he has been personally involved to some extent with more than 1,000 burn-pit claims. “There’s no way I’ve been involved with 10% of the nation’s burn pit claims,” he said. “So I want to know how they are getting these numbers.”
The military burned as much as 250 tons of trash a day at Joint Base Balad alone, as well as tons more in open pits in Iraq and Afghanistan—as close as one mile away from service members’ living quarters. (Juneau, Alaska, produces about 83 tons of trash a day.) In 2006, an Air Force bioenvironmental engineer called the pit at Joint Base Balad an “acute health hazard” and worried people on base would face chronic health problems.
Most large bases in Iraq and Afghanistan had burn pits, and the military burned everything from Styrofoam from the dining facilities to petroleum products to paints and solvents, releasing contaminants, including benzene, an aircraft fuel known to cause leukemia; arsenic; Freon; ethylbenzene; formaldehyde; hydrogen cyanide; nitrogen dioxide; sulfuric acid; and xylene.
The biggest issue? Dioxin, which is the same chemical that was used to make Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. It has been linked to cancers, diabetes, and birth defects. It also can interfere with the immune system. The Environmental Protection Agency explains that dioxin is a byproduct of burning materials—including wood, which is why burning trash in the backyard is banned in most cities.