Well-Being Prevention & Cures

Biden signs historic health care bill addressing toxic burn pits. But what exactly are they? 

Burn pits are essentially what they sound like – a massive, open-air space on a military base used to burn waste. 
FILE – An Afghan National Army pickup truck passes parked U.S. armored military vehicles, as smoke rises from a fire in a trash burn pit at Forward Operating Base Caferetta Nawzad, Helmand province south of Kabul, Afghanistan, April 28, 2011. The House has approved a significant expansion of health care and disability benefits for millions of veterans who were exposed to toxic burn pits while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Simon Klingert, File)

Story at a glance


  • President Biden signed the PACT Act into law on Wednesday, expanding health care coverage for veterans exposed to burn pits.  

  • Burn pits were a commonly used method of disposing waste on military bases during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Everything from uniforms to electronics to chemicals were thrown into massive pits and burned, emitting plumes of toxic smoke.  

  • The Department of Defense estimates that as many as 3.5 million service members have been exposed to burn pits since the first invasion of Iraq in the early 90s.  

President Biden signed a major health care bill, known as the PACT Act, into law on Wednesday that expands health care coverage for veterans harmed by exposure to burn pits.  

The White House has described the bipartisan legislation as the most significant expansion of veteran health care in 30 years. And while the veteran community has been sounding the alarm to the dangers of burn pits for years, many Americans still do not know what they are or their history.  

What is a burn pit?  

A burn pit is essentially exactly what it sounds like — a dug-out area on a U.S. military base used for burning all kinds of waste of war, like rubber tires, electronics, human waste, toxic chemicals, plastic, wood and left-over food.  

The U.S. military commonly used burn pits overseas until the mid-2010s, primarily during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  

Why are veterans concerned over burn pits? 

The indiscriminate burning of waste at military bases caused huge amounts of harmful smoke containing toxic chemicals to be emitted into the air close to where soldiers slept and ate, often for prolonged periods of time.  

A nearly 10-acre burn pit emitted enough smoke to cover Joint Base Balad — one of the largest military bases in Iraq — for instance, according to the Military Times. 

Exposure to burn pits during military service has been linked to cancer, respiratory illnesses and cardiovascular conditions.  

About 3.5 million service members could have been exposed to burn pits since the first invasion of Iraq in 1991, according to the Department of Defense.  

Between 2007 and 2020, over 12,500 veterans issued health care claims stating they had conditions connected to burn pit exposure and the Department of Veteran Affairs only accept the claims of about 2,800 of those veterans, according to Chief of U.S. Veteran Affairs Laurine Carson.  

Since the military did not keep a clear record of everything burned in pits, the exact toxins emitted into the air are unknown.  

Does the U.S. military still use burn pits?  

Burn pits have not been formally banned but their use across U.S. military bases has decreased, according to reporting from the Military Times. And while the Pentagon admits to the dangers posed by burn pits there were at least nine open burn pits as of 2019, according to a Department of Defense report to Congress from that year.   


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