According to U.S. Census data, there are approximately 17.4 million veterans in the United States. For many of these individuals, service to their country has forever impacted their lives and health.

The effects of military service can be emotional and physical, and even after centuries of war, there’s still more to be learned about the long-term effects of duty abroad. One area being researched is the long-term health effects of burn pits.

You may be wondering: What are burn pits? Do burn pits cause asthma? What can you do if you (or a veteran you know) were exposed to burn pits and have developed asthma? We’ll cover all these questions and more.

A burn pit is a large bonfire devoted to the destruction of trash. Burn pits were common in U.S. military sites abroad, particularly in Southeast Asia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

According to the military, some examples of items destroyed in burn pits are:

  • cleaners or chemicals
  • paint
  • medical, food, and human waste
  • aluminum or metal cans
  • munitions and other unexploded ordnance
  • petroleum and lubricant products
  • rubber, plastics and Styrofoam
  • wood and paper

Why are burn pits toxic for humans and the environment?

Burning large amounts of waste in an open-air setting produces more toxic fumes than using an enclosed incinerator.

“Toxic fumes” refer to harmful chemicals and particles released into the air during the burning process. Burn pit emissions can be a source of dioxins, furans, lead, mercury, volatile organic compounds, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which can be hazardous.

Does the military still use burn pits?

Burn pits were once a common U.S. military practice in Afghanistan, Iraq, and parts of Southwest Asia, but the Department of Defense has closed most of them. The department is also planning on closing the remaining pits, which will end the military’s use.

Exposure to burn pit emissions can cause respiratory health problems like asthma and bronchitis.

However, the Institute of Medicine concluded in 2011 that there was insufficient evidence to develop firm conclusions about the long-term effects of burn pits. And in 2014, other researchers noted that “no study has identified an association between burn pit emissions exposure and post-deployment chronic lung conditions.”

Various factors may impact the chance of developing long-term complications like asthma from burn pits, including:

  • type of items being burned
  • proximity to the burn pit
  • length of time and frequency of exposure
  • wind direction and other weather-related factors
  • other air particles and environmental risk factors

Exposure to the air particles from burn pits may lead to:

Many of the symptoms from burn pit exposure are temporary and can go away when the exposure ends. But long-term health complications can follow depending on factors like the length of exposure and the materials being burned.

While burn pits are not officially recognized as a cause, asthma is now one of the three presumptive conditions related to particle matter exposure recognized by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). (The other two are rhinitis and sinusitis.)

This means that there’s no need for the “burden of proof” if you’ve had one of these conditions within 10 years of leaving active military service.

Nine rare respiratory cancers are also presumed to be caused by military environmental exposures to fine particulate matter. These include:

The VA will process compensation claims for these conditions for veterans who served any amount of time in the Southwest Asia theater beginning Aug. 2, 1990, or Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Syria or Djibouti beginning Sept. 19, 2001.

Veterans can also file a claim for other chronic conditions they believe are due to burn pits, which will be considered on a case-by-case basis. If you are already enrolled in VA healthcare, you can speak with your primary healthcare professional about it. Otherwise, you can speak with an environmental health coordinator at the nearest VA medical center.

Burn pits were a common way to destroy trash in military sites outside the United States. But the U.S. military is now turning away from this method because of the potential health risks and environmental hazards.

Some soldiers have developed asthma or other conditions following their tour of duties in locations with burn pits. Research continues into the long-term effects on veterans who were exposed to burn pits and is currently inconclusive.

If you’re a veteran who has developed asthma after serving in an area where burn pits were used, you may be eligible for compensation. You may also wish to participate in the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry so that the Department of Defense can gain more information about the long-term health impact of burn pits.