What is Toxic Exposure?

Shifting the burden of proof off of our veterans to ensure they get the benefits they’ve earned and deserve

By: House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Staff

What is Toxic Exposure?

When Americans answer the call to serve, the risk of being exposed to toxic substances during their military service probably isn’t top of mind. But for thousands of veterans — unknowingly exposed to toxic substances during their service — it’s impossible to ignore when they transition out of the military.

Whether it’s airborne hazards from burn pits and other sources while serving abroad, contaminated water at military bases from PFAS and other toxins, or radiation from atomic testing and cleanups — each passing day more and more veterans speak out about their exposure to environmental hazards and toxic substances during military service.

As Rose Marie Martinez, Sc.D, from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine explained, “each conflict seems to have a particular exposure that is considered the hallmark of service in that era.” She noted that for Vietnam, it was the herbicide defoliants, specifically Agent Orange. For the 1990–91 Persian Gulf War, it was the smoke from burning oil well fires. And for the post-9/11 operations, it was the use of burn pits for open air waste burning.

Toxic exposure from these substances can lead to a myriad of complicated health effects — from cancers and respiratory infections to unexplained chronic-multi symptom illnesses and birth defects.

What is a “Presumptive” Service Connection?

In general, VA presumes that certain disabilities were caused by military service because of the unique circumstances of a specific veteran’s deployment. Once there is enough scientific evidence, certain illnesses and conditions tied to a specific geographic region or toxic exposure work through VA’s process and are eventually added to the presumption list. If a presumed condition is diagnosed in a veteran in a certain group, they can then be awarded disability compensation — and access to critical VA care and benefits for their service-connected disability.

What does this mean for veterans?

Right now, this means that only certain veterans exposed to certain toxins during a particular time window experiencing particular illnesses are eligible to access care and benefits through VA for a toxic exposure.

For example, Vietnam veterans that served in the Republic of Vietnam between January 9, 1962 and May 7, 1975 and were exposed to Agent Orange will qualify for “presumptive” disability benefits if they are experiencing certain illnesses.

But these presumptions don’t cover all veterans exposed to toxic substances during their service. Some veterans — regardless of the severity of their illness — do not qualify for VA care and benefits related to their toxic exposure. That’s more than unjust, it’s a betrayal of the trust the American public and veterans have placed in our government.

What’s more, VA’s current process is confusing, slow, and lacks transparency. As it stands, the burden of proof rests on each individual veteran — forcing them to provide evidence that they were exposed to a toxic substance during their service. Over 230,000 veterans have joined VA’s Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, which documents self-reported health impacts, but because of VA’s process, some veterans wonder whether it’s worth adding their name at all.

Additionally, these claims are so often denied that some veterans don’t even bother filing a claim. Over 13,000 veterans filed a disability benefits claim for a burn pit related condition between June 2007 to December 2020, but less than 3,000 of these claims were granted.

What is the Committee doing about it?

If America is willing to send our servicemembers into harm’s way to defend our democracy, then she must be willing to take care of all those who have borne the battle. That’s why Chairman Takano made addressing toxic exposure for all veterans — regardless of where or when they served — a top priority this Congress.

In 2019, Chairman Takano led the effort to finally pass the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act. This was a monumental step to grant benefits to veterans who served off the coast of Vietnam and were exposed to Agent Orange during their service, but it took more than 40 years to provide these veterans relief.

Chairman Takano and the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs are committed to finding a comprehensive solution, so veterans exposed to toxic substances can equitably access the care they need and ultimately, create a fair process for VA to decide future presumptions. There’s no reason that veterans and their survivors should have to fight VA for the care and benefits they earned. We cannot let another 40 years pass by before delivering on our pact to our post 9/11 veterans.

Recognizing toxic exposure as a cost of war, not only restores veterans’ trust in the VA, but reassures future generations that should they answer the call to serve, VA will always be there to care for them.

Chairman Mark Takano | House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs