During Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom, everything from old uniforms to plastic, aerosol cans, electronic equipment, human waste, tires, and batteries were thrown into open pits, often doused with jet fuel, and set on fire.
Many deployed soldiers were exposed to smoke from these open-air burn pits, putting them at risk for cancer, neurologic effects, reproductive effects, respiratory toxicity, and cardiovascular toxicity. Veterans who were close to burn pits have reported eye irritation, itching, rashes, and respiratory problems, such as bronchitis, asthma, and emphysema.
In May 2019, the VA redesignated the Airborne Hazards Center of Excellence (AHCE), established in 2013, as the Airborne Hazards and Burn Pits Center of Excellence (AHBPCE). The redesignation was a consequence of the Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act, which stemmed from an 18-month bipartisan effort to prevent burn pits from becoming “the Agent Orange of this generation of soldiers.” Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who cosponsored the legislation with Thom Tillis (R-NC) said, “After the Vietnam War, it took the US government years to recognize that there was a link between Agent Orange and its devastating health effects on our soldiers. … [W]e can’t make that same tragic mistake again by failing to identify the devastating health effects associated with burn pits.”
The AHCE was responsible for assessing veterans’ cardiopulmonary function, military/ nonmilitary exposures, and health-related symptoms for those with airborne hazard concerns. The AHBPCE will specialize in clinical and transitional research, focusing on expanding understanding of health outcomes and treatments for burn pit–related issues.
VA providers can consult with the AHBPCE about assessment and treatment. When appropriate, veterans may be invited for a comprehensive, multiday health evaluation from a specialized team. The examination includes state-of-the-art assessments of lung function and exercise capacity. The findings are used to develop recommendations, which are shared with the veteran and referring provider for follow-up care. The findings also are used by researchers at the center and throughout the VA to develop research questions to investigate and potentially improve clinical practice.
Veterans (including those who receive VA-authorized care in the community) with complex clinical presentations who are unable to be diagnosed locally may be referred for consultation or examination.
AHBPCE, which is located at the New Jersey War Related Illness and Injury Study Center (WRIISC), also provides the AHBPCE-WRIISC Airborne hazards Registry (AWARE) program, designed for veterans who complete the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry online questionnaire, report chronic respiratory symptoms, and meet other eligibility criteria. AHBPCE’s mandate also includes analyzing registry data to monitor the VA’s overall clinical response to exposure concerns.