Combustion fireplaces: what you need to know

What is a burn?

Burn pits are a common method of waste disposal primarily used by the United States military outside the United States. Basically, it is an open pit area used to burn solid waste on a large scale. The types of waste burned can range from chemicals and human waste to food scraps and rubber, among others.

Smoke and fumes from pits can be toxic. Exposure to pits can cause short and long term health problems. It can be worse if you have pre-existing breathing problems like asthma or other lung and heart conditions.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that approximately 3.5 million US military personnel may have been exposed to burning fireplaces.

Where are combustion pits used?

The U.S. military typically creates fire pits at bases outside of the United States, such as the Middle East, Africa, and parts of Asia. Locations include:

  • Iraq
  • Afghanistan
  • Kuwait
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Bahrain
  • Djibouti
  • Oman
  • Qatar
  • United Arab Emirates
  • Uzbekistan
  • Syria

Burn pits are also created on large bodies of water. This includes the Persian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea, and Red Sea.

What things are burned in the burn pits?

Burn pits are primarily used to dispose of solid waste. This may include:

  • Chemical products
  • To paint
  • medical waste
  • human waste
  • food waste
  • Metals like aluminum
  • Cans
  • Unexploded ordnance
  • Oil
  • Lubricant products
  • Plastics
  • polystyrene
  • Rubber
  • Wood

Combustion sources and health effects

Burning large amounts of waste in the open can produce far more toxic fumes than confined burning in an incinerator. The smoke can cause both short-term irritation and long-term health issues.

Short-term health problems are usually temporary and tend to go away when exposure stops. Symptoms you may have are:

  • Red and irritated eyes
  • To cough
  • burning throat
  • Itchy skin
  • Rashes
  • Difficulty breathing

Some people exposed to combustion fireplaces can develop long-term health problems. Exposure can also aggravate certain pre-existing conditions such as asthma, allergies, rhinitis and sinusitis.

Veterans have reported several long-term issues that affect:

  • The skin
  • The eyes
  • Kidney
  • Liver
  • reproductive system
  • Central nervous system
  • Heart
  • Peripheral nervous system
  • Digestive tract
  • Lungs

Some service members have also reported certain types of cancer among other illnesses.

Currently, there is not enough research and medical evidence to directly link burning fireplaces to long-term health issues, including cancer. But certain risk factors can increase your likelihood of developing short- or long-term problems.

They understand:

  • Types of waste burned in the pit
  • Distance, duration and frequency of exposure to the burn pit
  • Weather and wind direction
  • Other dangerous elements in the air

Fire pits are also bad for the environment. In addition to US military personnel, pollutants from the burning pits also pose a health risk to residents of the area. They cannot leave as easily as the troops and suffer the consequences.

Combustion pit register

To study the health risks of exposure to burning pits, the VA set up a registry called the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry (AHOBPR) in 2014. The registry is designed to help researchers collect data and to better understand the potential health effects of combustion fireplaces.

You can participate in the registry if you were on active military duty in:

  • Specified regions of the Middle East and Southwest Asia with hotspots after August 2, 1990
  • Afghanistan or Djibouti on or after September 11, 2001

You are eligible to participate even if you don’t have a medical condition or don’t remember being exposed to toxins from the fireplaces. Participation is voluntary and you will be required to complete and submit a questionnaire.

Can you get VA disability for exposure to the burn pit?

The VA recognizes that exposure to the burn pit can cause serious health problems. If you have been exposed to toxins from combustion fireplaces, you can file a claim for compensation and benefits.

To be entitled to benefits, there is no need for a burden of proof if you have:

  • One of 27 possible conditions caused by exposure to toxins. This includes asthma, rhinitis, sleep apnea, certain cancers and other lung problems.
  • Developed any of the listed conditions within 10 years of leaving active military service.

If you are unsure of your eligibility, speak to your VA health care provider.

What about backyard fire pits?

Burning trash in your backyard is not similar to military grade burn pits. It is also different from recreational fireplaces and campfires. Depending on the state or city you live in, it may be illegal to burn some or all types of trash. This includes waste such as paper, plastics, wood scraps or food scraps that would otherwise need to be recycled or landfilled. If you are caught using burning barrels or open fires to dispose of trash, you could be fined for the violation.

Fireplaces can release dangerous chemicals called dioxins directly into the atmosphere. They can affect air quality and enter water supplies. Dioxins are harsh chemicals that can cause serious health problems, even in small amounts, such as heart, lung, skin and developmental problems, and even cancer. Toxins can affect loved ones, neighbors and the community as a whole.

Military burners: what do we do about them?

Since 2010, the government has taken steps to protect US service members and reduce serious side effects from smoke from burning fireplaces. This includes some policy changes to better manage hot spots and limit exposure.

New firebox requirements include:

  • Create hotspots in downwind locations away from military living areas and where civilians live
  • Limit the size of the combustion chambers
  • Regulate waste that goes into burn pits
  • Specification of burn times — 3 hours after sunrise and 3 hours before sunset

Further research needs to be conducted to find alternative strategies to fireplaces to minimize financial and health burdens for all involved.

If you are concerned about exposure to the burn site and symptoms, talk to your doctor. VA Health Care provides free medical services to combat veterans for up to 5 years after active duty.

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