The Department of Veterans Affairs began processing veteran disability claims Monday for three illnesses believed to be related to exposure to burn pits used in the Southwest Asia theater of operations.
Asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis will now be presumed to have been caused by exposure to particulate matter, such as the smoke from burn pits, for service members deployed to Southwest Asia if the conditions manifested within 10 years of a qualifying deployment.
Those three conditions are the only ones so far that can be presumed to have been caused by military service. Other illnesses, such as rare cancers, have not yet been approved for presumption.
In order for a condition to be treated by the VA, it must be documented that it developed during military service and because of that service. Many veterans who developed conditions and diseases after deploying to the Middle East and eastern Africa have been unable to seek treatment for those illnesses due to an inability to prove it was caused during their service.
The military, in many locations, used open burn pits to destroy plastics, batteries, medical waste, ammunition and everything in between so it would not fall into enemy hands or impact the environment. More than 3.7 million active-duty service members and veterans were exposed to the toxic smoke from open burn pits in areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan during the War on Terror.
According to a release put out by the VA Monday, VA conducted the first iteration of a newly formed internal process “to review scientific evidence to support rulemaking, resulting in the recommendation to consider creation of new presumptions of service connection for respiratory conditions based on VA’s evaluation of a National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine report and other evidence.”
The process concluded that particulate matter pollution is associated with chronic asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis for veterans who served in the Southwest Asia theater of operations beginning Aug. 2, 1990 to the present, or Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Syria or Djibouti beginning Sept. 19, 2001, to the present. The review also concluded that there was sufficient evidence to presume that these Veterans have been exposed to particulate matter.
The Southwest Asia theater of operations refers to Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the neutral zone between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Oman, the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea and the airspace above these locations.
“I announced my intent to initiate rulemaking on May 27 to consider adding respiratory conditions to the list of chronic disabilities,” Denis McDonough, secretary of Veterans Affairs, said in a VA news release Monday about the policy change. “Through this process I determined that the evidence provided was sufficient to establish presumptions of service connection for these three respiratory conditions. This is the right decision, and VA will continue to use a holistic approach in determining toxic exposure presumptives moving forward.”
The VA intends to reach out to veterans and survivors to inform them of their eligibility and provide information on how to apply. Veterans and survivors who believe they may be eligible for the newly established presumptive conditions are encouraged to apply. They should file a VA Form 21-526EZ if applying for the first time or a VA Form 20-0995 if they are reapplying for these conditions. For more information on the new presumptive conditions, visit the VA website at Airborne Hazards and Burn Pit Exposures-Public Health at va.gov.
To apply for benefits, veterans and survivors may visit VA.gov or call toll-free at 800-827-1000.