Military service—wartime service in particular—comes with the heightened threat of severe injury or possibly even death. What is sometimes overlooked is that these men and women who serve often carry an elevated risk of illness due simply to toxic exposures from their everyday work environments, living conditions or other hazardous circumstances. These illnesses may show symptoms immediately or may cause long-term effects that go unnoticed for many years until they pose major health concerns for veterans.

In some cases, the Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes that certain illnesses are, in fact, caused directly by or linked to military service. Currently there are six health registries that exist for veterans who have had exposure to certain environmental hazards: Agent Orange, Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit, Depleted Uranium Follow-up, Gulf War, Ionizing Radiation and Toxic Embedded Fragments. These registries can then alert veterans to potential health issues related to those exposures.  On the Environmental Health Registry Evaluation page, veterans can check their eligibility to participate, review updated registry information and find contact information for the VA environmental health coordinator. These registries can also help the VA track and understand these health problems among veterans, but it’s important to note that participation does not confirm exposure to military-related environmental hazards for the purposes of disability compensation. Veterans must still undergo the VA claims process in order to verify such exposures according to military service records.

 

How does DAV help veterans with toxic exposures?

Some veterans who have suffered toxic exposures are granted “presumption of exposure” by the VA. This means that, by virtue of the time and place of service—as verified by military records—a veteran is presumed to have been exposed to a specific known toxin. This is not, however, true for all veterans.

DAV has been a leading advocate for veterans who have suffered illnesses believed to be caused by toxic exposures. For example, the organization’s representatives in Washington, D.C., have long fought for  Blue Water Navy Vietnam veterans to be granted the same presumption of exposure to Agent Orange as other so-called “boots on the ground,” finally seeing significant victories for these veterans in 2019. (See Vietnam War veterans: health concerns and benefits for more information.)

In addition to advocacy work, DAV benefits experts have helped countless veterans over the years file disability claims and fight appeals to establish service connection for illnesses known or suspected to be linked to toxic exposures. This assistance includes a full and thorough review of service medical records, collection of necessary evidence and—when necessary—providing free representation before the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.

 

Burn pits and other airborne hazards

DAV was the first to bring the hazards of burn pits to light in 2007 and has made further research into these exposures an ongoing legislative priority. In 2010, lawmakers banned the military from using burn pits except where there was no feasible alternative. In 2013, at DAV’s behest, Congress mandated the creation of the VA’s Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, and the 2018 defense-spending bill required the VA to coordinate further research on the effects of burn pits.

Burn pits have been used for decades to dispose of waste and garbage generated on American military bases overseas. Most recently, their use in Iraq and Afghanistan was prolific. There were more than 250 burn pits in those combat theaters that released an array of pollutants into the air, including particulate matter and known carcinogens. However, there is a misconception that burn pit exposure only impacts post-9/11 veterans.

During Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm (1990–1991) and since, burn pits were utilized in not only Iraq but also Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. During Operation Joint Endeavor in Bosnia in 1995 and 1996, burn pits were considered an operational necessity during combat operations. Since Sept. 11, 2001, burn pits have been used throughout the operations in Afghanistan and Djibouti, as well as in Iraq after March 20, 2003.

Within months or years after returning from deployment, some veterans exposed to the toxins emitted by burn pits, and who had no other known risk factors, reported rare pulmonary issues, insomnia and cancers. However, the VA does not currently provide a presumption of service connection for any diseases related to burn pit exposure, though many experts believe that ongoing and future research could establish such links.

DAV believes Congress should:

  • Ensure veterans from all eras and conflicts who served in areas where burn pits were present are included in any legislation related to these toxic exposures.
  • Enact legislation to concede burn pit exposure as it will remove the obstacles for veterans having to prove their individual exposure to burn pits and the types of toxins emitted, for claims based on direct service connection.
  • Enact legislation to extend or eliminate the five-year period for VA health care for combat veterans or to amend 38 U.S.C. Section 1710 to include VA health care for veterans exposed to burn pits.

If you are a veteran or service member who deployed to the Southwest Asia theater of operations on or after Aug. 2, 1990, or deployed to Afghanistan or Djibouti after Sept. 11, 2001, you can use the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry questionnaire to report exposures to airborne hazards (including smoke from burn pits, oil-well fires or other pollution), as well as other exposures and health concerns.

Registering can help you identify changes in your health, guide discussions with your health care provider and learn about follow-up care or VA benefits.

 

Illness due to toxic drinking water

Veterans, reservists and National Guard members who served at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune or Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) New River in North Carolina may have come in contact with contaminated drinking water at those installations, which have been scientifically shown to be associated with the development of certain diseases.

Individuals who served at either site for 30 cumulative days between Aug. 1, 1953, and Dec. 31, 1987, and who have been diagnosed with any of eight associated diseases are presumed to have incurred or aggravated the disease in service, and are therefore entitled to VA benefits.

The eight associated diagnoses include adult leukemia, aplastic anemia and other myelodysplastic syndromes, bladder cancer, kidney cancer, liver cancer, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and Parkinson’s disease.

Family members who were present at either site during the qualifying time period may also be eligible for health care benefits or monetary compensation for out-of-pocket health care costs related to the following conditions: bladder cancer, breast cancer, esophageal cancer, female infertility, hepatic steatosis, kidney cancer, leukemia, lung cancer, miscarriage, multiple myeloma, myelodysplastic syndromes, neurobehavioral effects, non-Hodgkin lymphoma. renal toxicity and scleroderma.

Family members must provide documents (marriage license, birth certificate, etc.)  proving a relationship to the veteran who served at either site as well as proof of residency at either Camp Lejeune or MCAS New River during the timeframe noted above and medical records showing diagnosis of one of the listed conditions.

Learn more or sign up at the Camp Lejeune Historic Drinking Water site to receive notifications. Additional information is available at the following sites:

VA Public Health:

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry: Camp Lejeune, North Carolina (public health study)

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine: Contaminated Water Supplies at Camp Lejeune: Assessing Potential Health Effects (2009 Consensus Report))

 

Occupational hazards

The VA may provide benefits to veterans who were exposed to hazardous chemicals and materials as part of their military occupation.

A number of military occupational specialties carry specific, unique risks that increase the chances of exposure to dangerous toxins. These risks can include exposure to asbestos; chemical weapons agents; specific environmental hazards in air, water or soil; and nuclear radiation.

 

Vaccinations

Some vaccinations or medications issued during service may have side effects, including the vaccines meant to protect against biological warfare agents anthrax and botulinum toxoid; pyridostigmine bromide, used during the Gulf War to protect against nerve agent attacks; the smallpox vaccine; and Mefloquine, used to prevent malaria.

To learn more about the potential side effects related to vaccinations or medications used during your military service, speak with your health care provider or contact your local VA environmental health coordinator.

 

Additional resources

Contact a DAV benefits expert or transition service officer if you have concerns about potential exposure to toxins during your military service.

The VA also provides an A-Z list of exposure topics, as well as breakdowns of exposures by war/conflict, category and health concern to help guide your conversation with your health care provider.

Learn more at mesothelioma.com.