As first appeared in NewsBreak
By Aron Solomon
As 2023 unfolded, burn pit litigation gained attention due to the adverse health effects experienced by service members exposed to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. government’s use of burn pits, where military waste was burned in open-air incinerators, has led to serious illnesses among military personnel, including cancer diagnoses.
As the New York Times first reported, despite the significant number of service members affected, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) initially denied the majority of burn pit exposure claims, citing a lack of conclusive data. This has led to a contentious battle over burn pits, involving health care dysfunction, distrust of the government, and legal disputes.
The Supreme Court has been involved in cases related to burn pit exposure, with more than 800 plaintiffs suing a contracting conglomerate in a class-action lawsuit seeking damages.
As burn pit litigator, Justin Drazin, Esq., observed, there will be much more litigation to come. “How difficult burn pit litigation has been for veterans reflects a far deeper challenge veterans have to overcome every time they seek to be compensated as a group for the profound health issues they have endured during the course of their service to our nation. Our veterans simply deserve better than these seemingly endless obstacles, which is what motivates those of us who represent them in ongoing burn pit litigation.”
President Biden has expressed his determination to help military veterans exposed to burn pit injuries and illnesses through various legislative actions and public statements.
The Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (PACT Act) was signed by President Biden into law, which expanded health care options and disability benefits for veterans exposed to toxic smoke from burn pits used in Iraq and Afghanistan. The PACT Act granted presumptive benefits status for 12 types of cancer and 12 other respiratory illnesses linked to burn pit smoke exposure during the recent wars.
President Biden has also highlighted the importance of this law in his public speeches and appearances, emphasizing the personal significance of the issue due to his son’s experience with brain cancer, which he attributed to toxic exposure during his Iraq tour. The Department of Veterans Affairs recently reported that nearly 550,000 claims related to the PACT Act have been approved since August 2022.
Yet the more we understand about the horrors of burn pits, the more we see that a desire for improved health care for veterans by a sympathetic president isn’t and won’t be enough.
Burn pits were used as a common waste disposal practice at military sites outside the United States, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. These burn pits were often massive areas where various waste products, including trash, plastics, wood, metal, paints, solvents, munitions, and medical and human waste, were burned in the open air, often using JP-8 jet fuel as an accelerant.
Reports indicated that more than 4.2 million military personnel were potentially exposed to the smoke and soot from burn pits. Concerns about the health effects of burn pit exposure led to the launch of the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry by the Department of Veterans Affairs in June 2014. Further studies and research projects have been initiated to determine the long-term health consequences of exposure to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As Attorney Drazin explained, “It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to military authorities that the smoke from these burn pits, especially where jet fuel was used to accelerate these controlled burns, had profound health effects on the dedicated military personnel charged with running these burn pits and everyone else on site.”
The Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act, signed into law by President Biden, expanded benefits for Gulf War era and post-9/11 veterans, adding more than 20 burn pit and other toxic exposure presumptive conditions, including various cancers and illnesses. Since the enactment of the PACT Act, more than 185,000 veterans have applied for its benefits, and over 730,000 veterans have been screened for exposure, with nearly 39% reporting concern.
While the VA continues to study the health of exposed veterans and has acknowledged the potential health effects of burn pit exposure, exactly how profound the health effects are of these toxic burn pits and how many people will be affected is still a tragic work in progress for 2024 and beyond.
About Aron Solomon
A Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer, Aron Solomon, JD, is the Chief Legal Analyst for Esquire Digital and the Editor-in-Chief for Today’s Esquire. He has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world. Aron has been featured in Forbes, CBS News, CNBC, USA Today, ESPN, TechCrunch, The Hill, BuzzFeed, Fortune, Venture Beat, The Independent, Fortune China, Yahoo!, ABA Journal, Law.com, The Boston Globe, YouTube, NewsBreak, and many other leading publications.