What Is a Burn Pit? Joe Biden Unveils Plans to Help Veterans in State of Union Address

President Joe Biden used his first State of the Union address on Tuesday to highlight the risks of burn pits and the effect they have had on the health of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Biden spoke about the potential long-term effects of burn pits, open-air areas in which waste and trash was combusted during military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other areas of Southwest Asia, on veterans.

The POTUS pledged a four-tiered "unity agenda" that includes enhanced support for veterans whose health was impacted by toxic smoke and pollution from burn pits.

Biden said: "I've always believed that we have a sacred obligation to equip those we send to war, and care for those and their families when they come home... And they come home, many of the world's fittest and best-trained warriors in the world, never the same. Headaches. Numbness. Dizziness. A cancer that would put them in a flag-draped coffin."

Biden said that he could not be sure that burn pits had contributed to the brain cancer that claimed the life of his son Beau Biden in 2015, or the health conditions of other veterans, but promised during the address to "finding out everything we can."

The president also acknowledged the work of the Department of Veterans of Affairs (VA), which is developing methods to investigate the potential link between toxic exposure to disease, particularly nine respiratory cancers.

What Were Burn Pits?

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) says that burn pits were areas devoted to the open-air, uncontrolled, combustion of trash. The use of burn pits was a common waste disposal practice at military sites outside the United States, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Materials burned in these pits included chemicals, paint, medical and human waste, metal/aluminum cans, munitions, and other unexploded ordnance, petroleum and lubricant products, plastics and Styrofoam, rubber, wood, and discarded food.

Some of the waste burned in these pits could give rise to toxic smoke-containing substances with potential to cause long and short-term health effects. The VA says that the burning of waste in such pits gives rise to more hazards than the burning of waste in controlled conditions such as commercial incinerators.

Short terms effects of exposure to burn pit smoke include nose, skin, and eye irritation, coughing and soreness in the throat, and breathing difficulties.

What is currently under investigation are the long-term effects of exposure. The VA says that there is currently insufficient research to demonstrate that long-term health problems have resulted from burn pit exposure.

The VA uses the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, which it launched in 2014, to track and monitor vets exposed to burn pits during service. According to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) it is estimated that 3.5 million service members and veterans were exposed to burn pits.

Veterans deployed after 1990 can join the registry, which helps participants to become more aware of their health, while simultaneously helping researchers to study the health effects of burn pits.

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An image of Joe Biden as he gives his first State of the Union address in Washington on March 1. President Biden pledged to "find out everything we can" about the link between exposure to toxic fumes from burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan and the long-term health of veterans. Pool/GETTY