Health Conditions Related to Toxic Exposure - Agent Orange/Gulf War/Burn Pits
Military Toxic Exposures
Military service—wartime service in particular—comes with the heightened threat of severe injury or possibly even death. What is sometimes overlooked is that these men and women who serve often carry an elevated risk of illness due simply to toxic exposures from their everyday work environments, living conditions or other hazardous circumstances. These illnesses may show symptoms immediately or may cause long-term effects that go unnoticed for many years until they pose major health concerns for veterans.
In some cases, the Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes that certain illnesses are, in fact, caused directly by or linked to military service. Currently there are six health registries that exist for veterans who have had exposure to certain environmental hazards: Agent Orange, Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit, Depleted Uranium Follow-up, Gulf War, Ionizing Radiation and Toxic Embedded Fragments. These registries can then alert veterans to potential health issues related to those exposures. On the Environmental Health Registry Evaluation page, veterans can check their eligibility to participate, review updated registry information and find contact information for the VA environmental health coordinator. These registries can also help the VA track and understand these health problems among veterans, but it’s important to note that participation does not confirm exposure to military-related environmental hazards for the purposes of disability compensation. Veterans must still undergo the VA claims process in order to verify such exposures according to military service records.
Continue to scroll down to obtain information different types of exposures, diseases the VA recognizes as a result of that exposure, and certain conditions that may apply to file a successful claim with the VA:
- Agent Orange Exposure
- Gulf War Illness
- Burn Pits and Other Airborne Hazards
- Illness Due to Toxic Drinking Water at Camp Lejeune
- "Atomic Veterans" and Radiation Exposure
- Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)
Agent Orange Exposure
Agent Orange was a herbicide mixture used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. Much of it contained a dangerous chemical contaminant called dioxin. Production of Agent Orange ended in the 1970s and is no longer in use. The dioxin contaminant however continues to have harmful impact today. As many U.S. Vietnam-Era veterans know, dioxin is a highly toxic and persistent organic pollutant linked to cancers, diabetes, birth defects and other disabilities.
For the purposes of VA compensation benefits, Veterans who served anywhere in Vietnam between January 9, 1962 and May 7, 1975 are presumed to have been exposed to herbicides, as specified in the Agent Orange Act of 1991. These Veterans do not need to show that they were exposed to Agent Orange or other herbicides in order to get disability compensation for diseases related to Agent Orange exposure. To qualify for VA Compensation Benefits for disabilities caused due to the exposure of Agent Orange a veteran only needs to have served in Vietnam, the inlet water ways, or within 12 nautical miles seaward from the demarcation line of the waters of Vietnam and Cambodia, and have been diagnosed with one of the following conditions:
- AL Amyloidosis
- Chronic B-Cell Leukemias
- Diabetes Mellitus Type 2
- Hodgkin’s Disease
- Ischemic Heart Disease
- Multiple Myeloma
- Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Peripheral Neuropathy, Early-Onset
- Porphyria Cutanea Tarda
- Prostate Cancer
- Respiratory Cancers
- Soft Tissue Sarcomas*
- Bladder Cancer
*Exceptions: osteosarcoma, chondrosarcoma, Kaposi’s sarcoma, and mesothelioma
The VA has additionally recognized that Agent Orange was used in other locations outside of Vietnam and that military personnel could have been exposed to this chemical while performing the duties of their jobs. Below is a list of other circumstances in which the VA will grant exposure to Agent Orange on a presumptive basis:
- The veteran while performing their duties worked on regular perimeter duty on the fenced-in perimeters of a U.S. Army installation in Thailand or a Royal Thai Air Force base. These bases include U-Tapao, Ubon, Nakhon Phanom, Udorn, Takhli, Korat, or Don Muang. However, the veteran must have served in one of the following units to establish presumptive service-connection:
- 2nd ID: Combat Brigade
- 7th Infantry Division: 3rd Brigade
- 7th Cavalry: 4th Battalion
- 7th Cavalry: 4th Squadron, Counter Agent Company
- 9th Infantry: 1st and 2nd Battalions
- 10th Cavalry: 2nd Battalion
- 12th Artillery: 1st Battalion
- 13th Engineer Combat Battalion
- 15th Artillery: 1st Battalion
- 17th Artillery: 7th Battalion
- 17th Infantry: 1st and 2nd battalions
- 23rd Infantry: 1st, 2nd and 3rd Battalions
- 31st Infantry: 2nd Battalion (Service Records may show assignment to 2ID or 7ID)
- 32nd Infantry, 1st Battalion (3rd BDE of 7ID)
- 32nd Infantry: 3rd Battalion (Service Records may show assignment to 2ID or 7ID)
- 37th Artillery: 6th Battalion
- 38th Infantry: 1st and 2nd Battalions
- 38th Artillery: 5th Battalion
- 72nd Armor: 1st and 2nd Battalion
- 73rd Armor: 1st Battalion
- United Nations Command Security Battalion – Joint Security Area (UNCSB-JSA)
- The veteran served in or near the Korean DMZ for any length of time between September 1, 1967, and August 31, 1971, or
- The veteran served on active duty in a regular Air Force unit location where a C-123 aircraft with traces of Agent Orange was assigned, and had repeated contact with this aircraft due to your flight, ground, or medical duties, or
- The veteran was involved in transporting, testing, storing, or other uses of Agent Orange during your military service, or
- The veterans was assigned as a Reservist to certain flight, ground, or medical crew duties at one of the below locations:
- Lockbourne/Rickenbacker Air Force Base in Ohio, 1969 to 1986 (906th and 907th Tactical Air Groups or 355th and 356th Tactical Airlift Squadrons)
- Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts, 1972 to 1982 (731st Tactical Air Squadron and 74th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, or 901st Organizational Maintenance Squadron)
- Pittsburgh International Airport in Pennsylvania, 1972 to 1982 (758th Airlift Squadron)
Gulf War Illness
Veterans who served in the Persian Gulf War were often exposed to various environmental and chemical hazards. Environmental hazards include particulate matter such as sand, dust, and airborne chemical particles. Oil well fires in Kuwait also exposed some veterans to hazardous smoke and pollutants. Exposure to contaminants in the Southwest Asia theater of operations has caused some veterans to develop unexplained symptoms and rare conditions, such as serious respiratory conditions and cancers.
A prominent condition affecting Gulf War Veterans is a cluster of medically unexplained chronic symptoms that can include fatigue, headaches, joint pain, indigestion, insomnia, dizziness, respiratory disorders, and memory problems. The VA refers to these illnesses as "chronic multi-symptom illness" and "undiagnosed illnesses." We prefer not to use the term “Gulf War Syndrome” when referring to medically unexplained symptoms reported by Gulf War Veterans. Why? Because symptoms vary widely.
Gulf War Veterans who meet the criteria below do not need to prove a connection between their military service and illnesses in order to receive VA disability compensation.
VA presumes certain chronic, unexplained symptoms existing for 6 months or more are related to Gulf War service without regard to cause. These "presumptive" illnesses must have appeared during active duty in the Southwest Asia theater of military operations or by December 31, 2026, and be at least 10 percent disabling. These illnesses include:
- Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS), a condition of long-term and severe fatigue that is not relieved by rest and is not directly caused by other conditions.
- Fibromyalgia, a condition characterized by widespread muscle pain. Other symptoms may include insomnia, morning stiffness, headache, and memory problems.
- Functional gastrointestinal disorders, a group of conditions marked by chronic or recurrent symptoms related to any part of the gastrointestinal tract. Functional condition refers to an abnormal function of an organ, without a structural alteration in the tissues. Examples include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), functional dyspepsia, and functional abdominal pain syndrome.
- Undiagnosed illnesses with symptoms that may include but are not limited to: abnormal weight loss, fatigue, cardiovascular disease, muscle and joint pain, headache, menstrual disorders, neurological and psychological problems, skin conditions, respiratory disorders, and sleep disturbances.
Burn Pits and Other Airborne Hazards
In 2010, lawmakers banned the military from using burn pits except where there was no feasible alternative. In 2013, Congress mandated the creation of the VA’s Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, and the 2018 defense-spending bill required the VA to coordinate further research on the effects of burn pits.
Burn pits have been used for decades to dispose of waste and garbage generated on American military bases overseas. Most recently, their use in Iraq and Afghanistan was prolific. There were more than 250 burn pits in those combat theaters that released an array of pollutants into the air, including particulate matter and known carcinogens. However, there is a misconception that burn pit exposure only impacts post-9/11 veterans.
During Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm (1990–1991) and since, burn pits were utilized in not only Iraq but also Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. During Operation Joint Endeavor in Bosnia in 1995 and 1996, burn pits were considered an operational necessity during combat operations. Since Sept. 11, 2001, burn pits have been used throughout the operations in Afghanistan and Djibouti, as well as in Iraq after March 20, 2003.
Within months or years after returning from deployment, some veterans exposed to the toxins emitted by burn pits, and who had no other known risk factors, reported rare pulmonary issues, insomnia and cancers. In August of 2021, the VA introduced three presumptive conditions for burn pit exposure. To be eligible for VA Compensation the veteran must have gotten one of the following three conditions within ten years from their separation from their military service:
If you are a veteran or service member who deployed to the Southwest Asia theater of operations on or after Aug. 2, 1990, or deployed to Afghanistan or Djibouti after Sept. 11, 2001, you can use the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry questionnaire to report exposures to airborne hazards (including smoke from burn pits, oil-well fires or other pollution), as well as other exposures and health concerns. Registering can help you identify changes in your health, guide discussions with your health care provider and learn about follow-up care or VA benefits.
Illness Due to Toxic Drinking Water at Camp Lejeune
Veterans, reservists and National Guard members who served at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune or Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) New River in North Carolina may have come in contact with contaminated drinking water at those installations, which have been scientifically shown to be associated with the development of certain diseases.
Individuals who served at either site for 30 cumulative days between Aug. 1, 1953, and Dec. 31, 1987, and who have been diagnosed with any of eight associated diseases are presumed to have incurred or aggravated the disease in service, and are therefore entitled to VA benefits.
The eight associated diagnoses include:
- Adult Leukemia
- Aplastic Anemia and other Myelodysplastic Syndromes
- Bladder Cancer
- Kidney Cancer
- Liver Cancer
- Multiple Myeloma
- Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and
- Parkinson’s Disease.
Family members who were present at either site during the qualifying time period may also be eligible for health care benefits or monetary compensation for out-of-pocket health care costs related to the following conditions: bladder cancer, breast cancer, esophageal cancer, female infertility, hepatic steatosis, kidney cancer, leukemia, lung cancer, miscarriage, multiple myeloma, myelodysplastic syndromes, neurobehavioral effects, non-Hodgkin lymphoma. renal toxicity and scleroderma.
Family members must provide documents (marriage license, birth certificate, etc.) proving a relationship to the veteran who served at either site as well as proof of residency at either Camp Lejeune or MCAS New River during the timeframe noted above and medical records showing diagnosis of one of the listed conditions.
"Atomic Veterans" and Radiation Exposure
The VA has recognized certain diseases as related to ionizing radiation exposure during military service. Veterans may be eligible for disability compensation and healthcare for these diseases. Their survivors may also be eligible for survivors' benefits from the VA.
For Veterans who participated in a radiation-risk activity during service (including "Atomic Veterans"), VA assumes that certain cancers are related to their exposure. We call these "presumptive diseases."
- Cancers of the bile ducts, bone, brain, breast, colon, esophagus, gall bladder, liver (primary site, but not if cirrhosis or hepatitis B is indicated), lung (including bronchiolo-alveolar cancer), pancreas, pharynx, ovary, salivary gland, small intestine, stomach, thyroid, urinary tract (kidney/renal, pelvis, urinary bladder, and urethra)
- Leukemia (except chronic lymphocytic leukemia)
- Lymphomas (except Hodgkin’s disease)
- Multiple myeloma (cancer of plasma cells)
These Veterans don't have to prove a connection between these diseases and their service to be eligible for disability compensation. Their survivors also may be eligible for survivors' benefits if the Veteran dies as the result of one of these diseases.
Additionally, the VA recognizes that the following diseases are possibly caused by exposure to ionizing radiation during service:
- All cancers
- Non-malignant thyroid nodular disease
- Parathyroid adenoma
- Posterior subcapsular cataracts
- Tumors of the brain and central nervous system
Eligibility for disability compensation or survivors' benefits depends on how much radiation the Veteran received and other factors, such as the period of time between exposure to radiation and the development of the disease. VA decides these claims on a case-by-case basis.
The VA also will consider the possibility that other diseases not listed above were caused by radiation, if supported by medical or scientific evidence. To be eligible for compensation, VA must be able to establish that it is at least as likely as not that a Veteran’s disease was caused by his/her exposure to radiation during military service.
In order to establish exposure to ionizing radiation on presumptive basis, the VA has determined that the veteran must have had contact in one of the following ways while serving in the military:
- The veteran was part of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing, or
- The veteran served in the postwar occupation of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, or
- The veteran was a prisoner of war (POW) in Japan, or
- The veteran worked as an x-ray technician, in a reactor plant, or in nuclear medicine or radiography (while on active duty or during active or inactive duty for training in the Reserves), or
- The veteran did tasks like those of a Department of Energy (DOE) employee that would make the veteran a member of the Special Exposure Cohort (See 42 U.S.C. 7384L(14))
Veterans may also qualify for disability benefits if you served in at least one of these locations and capacities:
- The veteran was part of underground nuclear weapons testing at Amchitka Island, Alaska, or
- The veteran was aassigned to a gaseous diffusion plant at Paducah, Kentucky, or
- The veteran was assigned to a gaseous diffusion plant at Portsmouth, Ohio, or
- The veteran was assigned to a gaseous diffusion plant at Area K-25 at Oak Ridge, Tennessee
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)
The VA presumes amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) diagnosed in all Veterans who had 90 days or more continuous active military service is related to their service.