Three U.S. soldiers burn trash in a pit just outside the...

Three U.S. soldiers burn trash in a pit just outside the walls of the Jaghatu outpost in Jaghatu, Afghanistan on Sept. 12, 2012. Credit: The Washington Post via Getty Im/The Washington Post

The Department of Veterans Affairs is adding nine rare respiratory cancers to its list of presumed service-connected illnesses due to toxic exposure to high concentrations of particulate matter while serving in military combat zones.

The VA will begin processing disability compensation claims for veterans who developed any of the cancers after serving in military operations in Southwest Asia since the 1990 Gulf War or in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Syria or Djibouti after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The list of disabilities includes:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma of both the larynx and the trachea
  • Adenocarcinoma of the trachea
  • Salivary gland-type tumors of the trachea
  • Large cell, Adenosquamous and Sarcomatoid carcinomas of the lung
  • Salivary gland-type tumors of the lung
  • Typical and atypical carcinoid of the lung

“With these new presumptives, veterans who suffer from these rare respiratory cancers will finally get the world-class care and benefits they deserve, without having to prove causality between their service and their condition,” said VA Secretary Denis McDonough.

As of Sept. 30, 2021, the VA had received 151 claims for the nine rare respiratory cancers, according to a notice published Tuesday in the Federal Register.

VA studies found it's "biologically plausible" that open air burn pits — used to burn everything from human and medical waste to plastic water bottles, emitting fumes breathed in by soldiers — played role in causing the cancers, the notice concluded. The region's arid climate, dust storms and other environmental conditions also may have played a role, the VA said.

Patrick Donohue, who runs Project 9 Line, an Islip organization that helps transition Long Island veterans back into civilian life, said the VA's move is critical for seriously ill vets.

"I think its great that they're taking proactive steps on their own because they realize how rare those conditions are but how prevalent they are in the veteran population," said Donohue, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor after exposure to burn pits while serving in the Army 101st Airborne Division in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan. "To add them to the presumptive list is just smart … Veterans … could be out of work if they need treatment and if they're not being compensated by the VA for their disability then they can't even pay their bills."

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand called the VA's change “welcome news” but said Congress must still pass legislation extending benefits to service members who have cancer and 22 other severe illnesses linked to burn pits.

The Honoring Our PACT Act would remove the ‘burden of proof’ from veterans to provide evidence establishing a direct service connection between their health condition and exposure.

Veterans, survivors or dependents who previously had claims denied for any of the nine respiratory cancers are encouraged to file a supplemental claim for benefits.

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