Many U.S. veterans were exposed to toxic air, soil, and water pollutants during their time of military service. As more information becomes available about the long-term repercussions of exposure to various toxic conditions, the VA continues to expand disability benefits for toxic exposure.
A case in point is the PACT Act, which dramatically expanded the VA’s ability to award disability benefits to U.S. veterans dealing with health conditions connected to toxic exposure. With the rapidly changing status of the VA’s processes and empowerment, it’s worth reviewing conditions classified as toxic exposure, even if you’ve previously filed a claim and been denied benefits.
- Camp Lejeune Water Contamination
- Agent Orange
- Burn Pit Exposure
It’s not uncommon for American veterans to be exposed to a wide variety of toxic substances during their time of military service. During the course of their everyday duties, they may come into contact with anything from powerful industrial solvents, insulation, and dangerous chemicals to air pollutants, contaminated drinking water, and more. Over time, this exposure can result in serious and debilitating medical conditions, some of which the medical community is just beginning to understand. In recent years, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has greatly expanded its ability to make sure that veterans who suffer today because of exposures during their time of active duty service have access to the benefits they need – and that they have earned.
What Is a Presumptive Disability?
In terms of VA disability claims, presumptive conditions are those that the VA typically considers connected to military service. In other words, the VA assumes that a veteran with a presumptive condition has that disability or worsened the disability through their service in the armed forces.
The VA requires veterans to prove a service connection to receive disability compensation. This ensures that the condition leading to the claim is actually a result of or became worse during their military service. However, a presumptive disability does not require the same amount of evidence as non-presumptive conditions to prove a service connection. Rather, the VA assumes that the condition is related to the veteran’s service.
There are several conditions that the VA considers presumptive, including disabilities related to burn pit exposure, such as sleep apnea or neurological conditions. Gulf War veterans, veterans exposed to toxic drinking water, and former prisoners of war typically qualify for presumptive condition status with a disability claim.
While a presumptive condition proves service connection to the VA, it does not prove a diagnosis. Therefore, veterans must still provide the VA with ample medical evidence showing that they’ve received a diagnosis for their condition from a qualified medical professional.
What Is an Airborne Hazard?
An airborne hazard is a contaminant found in the environment that someone can breathe in, potentially causing negative side effects. Military personnel are especially vulnerable to airborne hazards during their time in the service, as they travel to different areas with nonstandard environmental conditions and are exposed to chemicals and other contaminants from weapons and equipment.
More specifically, servicemembers may become exposed to airborne hazards such as:
- Burning debris
- Sand or dust particles
- Burning of human waste
- Vehicle engine exhaust
- Fire smoke
Veterans who served in wars with specific environmental conditions or wars that used hazardous burn pits may suffer from short-term or long-term health effects. In these cases, the VA often considers their conditions as presumptive disabilities for a VA disability rating and compensation.
VA Disability Benefits for Toxic Exposure
The VA recognizes that several different situations are presumed service-connected toxic exposures. Let’s take a deeper dive into the specific conditions that the VA recognizes as being eligible for VA disability benefits.
Veterans in several different categories may have been exposed to dangerous radiation. These groups include veterans who worked with or near nuclear weapons testing, served in the post-WWII occupation of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, were imprisoned in Japan, or served at a gaseous diffusion plant, among others. Many of these veterans now experience health issues ranging from cancers such as breast cancer, liver cancer, stomach, colon, or pancreatic cancer, to complications including brain and central nervous system tumors. The VA recognizes that these conditions likely are related to exposure to radiation during the veteran’s time of military service.
To be approved for VA disability benefits related to radiation exposure, a veteran must submit appropriate documentation of the specific medical diagnosis. If that diagnosis is on the list of presumptive conditions, the veteran will likely be approved for VA disability benefits.
When a veteran submits a claim, the VA will request that either the military branch in which the veteran served or the Defense Threat Reduction Agency provide a range of radiation levels they estimate the veteran to have been exposed to. The VA will then use the highest level of the given range to determine the appropriate level of disability benefits.
Asbestos includes a wide range of toxic fibers once commonly used in building materials. Many U.S. veterans were exposed to asbestos during their time of active duty service. This is especially true for veterans who served in Iraq, other Middle Eastern countries, and Southeast Asia. In many cases, as old buildings were destroyed, toxic chemicals from asbestos were then released into the air. Veterans who spent part of their service time working in shipyards, at construction sites, building demolitions, or vehicle repairs may have been exposed to potentially dangerous levels of asbestos. This exposure often leads to significant health issues later in life.
To be approved for VA disability benefits related to asbestos exposure, a veteran typically needs to submit documentation of the time, location, and branch of service, along with documentation that illustrates the type of work the veteran engaged in while serving.
In addition, a successful claim will document an official medical diagnosis of a condition presumed to be connected to asbestos exposure. Eligible conditions may include mesothelioma, lung cancer, pleural plaques, and asbestosis. To further strengthen a claim, a veteran also should include an official statement from a medical professional stating that the veteran’s current health condition is a likely outcome of asbestos exposure during the time of service.
Veterans who served at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune or Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) New River in North Carolina between 1953 and 1987 may have been exposed to contaminated drinking water. The same is true for any family members who may have been stationed with the veteran. Medical research has shown a strong correlation between exposure to these contaminants – including benzene, vinyl chloride, and others – during military service and the development of certain diseases and medical conditions later in life. Many of these illnesses do not manifest until years after exposure.
Medical conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, adult leukemia, bladder, liver, or kidney cancer, multiple myeloma, and aplastic anemia, among others, are considered presumptive conditions associated with water contamination at Camp Lejeune. When a veteran submits a VA disability claim, they will need to show documentation that they have been diagnosed by a medical professional with one or more of these conditions. They must also provide appropriate documentation showing that they, indeed, were stationed at Camp Lejeune or New River during the specified time period.
For this particular toxic exposure, both veterans and their families are eligible for VA health care benefits. In addition to the documentation outlined above, a family member also will need to provide appropriate evidence to establish their relationship with the veteran – a marriage license or birth certificate, for example.
Those who served in the military during the Vietnam War may have been exposed to Agent Orange, a powerful herbicide the U.S. used to clear trees and brush during the conflict. Since then, many veterans have developed a range of medical conditions and illnesses that show a connection to this exposure.
If you have a health condition that can be attributed to Agent Orange exposure, and you can provide documentation that you served in a location where you were exposed to this chemical, you may be eligible for VA disability benefits related to your medical condition.
The VA considers Agent Orange exposure a presumptive case, which means reviewers automatically presume that certain illnesses and cancers are a result of Agent Orange exposure. In addition, the VA presumes that veterans who served in certain geographic areas were exposed to Agent Orange. These two key presumptions are known as a presumptive condition and presumptive exposure, respectively. The presumptive nature of Agent Orange claims means the burden of proof for the veteran to show a service connection is much lower than without the presumptive consideration.
Presumptive conditions associated with Agent Orange exposure include several types of cancers, such as respiratory or prostate cancer, along with Hodgkin’s disease, multiple myeloma, and others. In addition, illnesses including hypothyroidism, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and Parkinson’s disease, among others, are considered presumptive conditions associated with Agent Orange exposure.
Veterans who spent active duty service time in Afghanistan or Iraq, along with other areas of recent conflict, may have been exposed to toxic chemicals generated by burn pits. In general, burn pits were designated areas for waste disposal in which everything from munitions, plastics, and medical and human waste to paint and other chemicals were burned in the open air.
These same veterans may have also come into contact with other environmental hazards through soil, water, or air pollutants. With the passing of the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022, the VA greatly expanded its list of presumptive conditions associated with these types of toxic exposures. This lowers or eliminates many barriers for U.S. veterans to be approved for vital VA disability benefits associated with medical conditions either directly caused or exacerbated by toxic exposure.
With this expansion of the VA’s presumptive conditions list, many cancers now are considered presumptive, including brain cancer, gastrointestinal cancer, head cancer of any type, kidney cancer, lymphoma, melanoma, pancreatic cancer, and reproductive or respiratory cancer, among others. In addition, the list of illnesses considered presumptive in association with burn pit exposure now includes asthma, chronic sinusitis, rhinitis or bronchitis, emphysema, interstitial lung disease, and more.
To be approved for VA disability benefits related to toxic burn pit exposure, a veteran must verify the medical diagnosis of a presumptive condition, along with providing documentation of the time and location of active duty military service. If those two items are appropriately documented, VA reviewers will presume that the medical condition is service-connected. The stipulations of the PACT Act will dramatically increase the chances for veterans to have their VA disability claims approved and gain access to the vital disability benefits they deserve.
All veterans who think they might have been exposed to toxic burn pit contaminants can register with the VA’s Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry. Doing so is completely voluntary but it helps the veteran along with the VA. By completing the registration questionnaire and becoming part of the national database, a veteran can better identify health concerns, lead discussions with health care providers, and document deployment-related exposures. The VA benefits by being able to better track and study the health conditions of veterans who were exposed to toxic chemicals. Please also note that all veterans who are eligible for the registry also are eligible to receive an optional no-cost, in-person medical evaluation.
Sinusitis VA Disability Ratings
Sinusitis is an infection of the sinuses that causes congestion, headaches, eye or face pain, and nasal drainage. Burn pit exposure may lead to chronic sinusitis.
The VA rates sinusitis as 0%, 10%, 30%, and 50%. A 0% rating is given to veterans when they receive a diagnosis based on an x-ray. Veterans with one or two bouts of sinusitis requiring antibiotics in a year can qualify for a 10% rating, while those with three or more episodes annually can receive a 30% rating.
A 50% rating is reserved for veterans with chronic sinusitis symptoms or requiring surgery.
Asthma VA Disability Ratings
Asthma is a condition that causes swelling and narrowing in your airways, making it difficult — sometimes, nearly impossible — to breathe. Veterans may experience asthma due to military exposure to burn pits and other environmental contaminants during their military service.
The VA requires veterans with service-connected asthma to have a confirmed medical diagnosis and experience persistent and recurring asthma symptoms. VA disability ratings for asthma can be 0%, 10%, 30%, 60%, or 100%. Veterans qualifying for 100% disability typically experience more than one asthma attack per week or require daily medications to control their condition.
Allergic Rhinitis VA Disability Ratings
Allergic rhinitis stems from irritants that affect the nasal passages, causing symptoms like runny nose, congestion, sore throat, and watery eyes.
A veteran with rhinitis and no polyps may receive a 10% rating if one nasal passage has a complete obstruction or both have at least a 50% obstruction. Veterans with allergic rhinitis with polyps generally receive a 30% disability rating from the VA.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs continues to improve the health care services it provides for our nation’s veterans, including health care and disability benefits. With the recent expansion of presumptive conditions related to toxic exposures, it’s more important than ever for veterans who believe that their current medical conditions are rooted in exposure to contaminants during their time of military service to apply for VA disability benefits.
Even if you’ve already had a claim denied, it’s important that you continue to bring your case before the VA, which is now empowered to approve claims more quickly. If you’ve previously submitted a VA disability claim that was denied, you may also choose to work with a qualified VA disability attorney to evaluate the strength of your claim and submit it in order to access the vital health care benefits you need.