The Big Insight: Despite a flurry of controversy that at one point involved television host Jon Stewart, a huge bipartisan majority voted to expand health benefits to millions of veterans who may have been exposed to toxic fumes.
Millions of U.S. veterans were exposed to smoke and fumes from burn pits during their time serving the country overseas. But limits on qualifications for benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs prevented many of them from getting healthcare once back home. In response, a bipartisan congressional group developed the bipartisan PACT Act to get veterans the care they deserve. Although a procedural holdup stalled the bill in summer — which led to days of media controversy after the delay was denounced at a press conference by Stewart — the bill ultimately passed the Senate 86-11. Here are five facts on what burn pits are, and how the new law will help.
1. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that as many as 3.5 million veterans may have been exposed to burn pits.
Burn pits were regularly used by the U.S. military outside of the U.S. to dispose of solid waste. Chemicals, paint, rubber, metals, food scraps, and human waste were among the types of items incinerated in burn pits, and the smoke and fumes can be toxic.
2. The military began phasing out burn pits in 2009.
Following critical investigative reports in The Military Times in 2008, President Barack Obama in 2009 ordered federal agencies to revise practices based on new scientific data, and later that year the VA began an 18-month study of the use of burn pits. While most were phased out in the early 2010s, as of July 2019 there were still nine sanctioned burn pits in operations in Afghanistan, Egypt, and Syria. President Biden has said he suspects there was a link between burn pits and the death of his son Beau Biden, an Iraq veteran, from a rare brain cancer in 2015.
3. The VA created the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry (AHOBPR) in 2014.
The Disabled American Veterans began campaigning for a voluntary registry in 2007. As of July 2022, the VA had approved disability claims for respiratory conditions from nearly 573,000 veterans of post-9/11 service, but the claims of 315,000 veterans were denied due to the limited scope of qualification at that time.
4. The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act was signed into law on August 10.
Robinson, an Ohio National Guard veteran, died in 2020 after a three-year fight against lung cancer. He attributed his illness to smoke exposure from burning trash pits during his deployment to Iraq in 2006 and 2007, and his wife and mother became advocates for those denied VA benefits because the agency did not believe that their illnesses were service-related.
5. The PACT Act expands eligibility for VA healthcare benefits to veterans with toxic exposures dating back to the Vietnam era.
The new law adds more than 20 new presumptive conditions for burn pits and other toxic exposures, and will expand benefits to millions of veterans. It covers veterans of the Gulf War and post-9/11 military operations in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, and Yemen, as well as additional eligibility for Vietnam-era veterans who served in American Samoa, Cambodia, Guam, Laos, and Thailand.