The effects of serving in a war zone can linger with veterans long after they end their tour of duty and an emerging health concern is exposure to toxic burn pits.
Retired Master Corporal Arjan Grewal, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, told The West Block host Mercedes Stephenson that burn pits were a common part of life on bases during his six tours of duty.
“It’s a large bonfire, if you will, that is in the middle of a military base or a forward operating base. And it’s used to incinerate everything, and I mean everything; helicopter carcasses, batteries, human waste, ammunition, food waste,” Grewal explained.
“Why burn pits are such a specific cause of toxic exposure is because it smolders. It doesn’t incinerate at a high rate. It’s not plasma-fired and it doesn’t get rid of anything very fast. And with the populations that exist on military bases, they’re often living around where those burn pits are placed.”
Grewal describes burn pits as “a necessary evil” because bases are often set up in areas where there aren’t proper waste disposal facilities, and where establishing them could be a security risk.
“So, burn pits are utilized often and a lot more so than just in a couple of these large forward operating bases,” he said.
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Now in his civilian life, Grewal is the CEO of Ventus Respiratory Technologies, a company that creates specialized personal protective equipment (PPE) – masks to protect military, law enforcement and first responders from toxic particulates they can be exposed to on the job.
He’s also been advocating for research into how the health effects of burn pits are impacting Canadian soldiers and veterans years later.
“We are some of the healthiest, fittest, most tracked population in Canada, and we’re still seeing a high rate of illness. So in terms of what types of illnesses that we see, cancers are obviously one that are very scary, but there’s COPD, asthma, infertility,” he said. “From these chemicals metabolizing into your bloodstreams, into major organs, into the brain, we’re seeing really complex cases earlier in age. And as we talk about veterans, some of these afflictions are coming to currently serving soldiers, not just people who’ve retired.”
He says there is little research being done in Canada but he suspects if more is done, it will paint a serious picture of health impacts on veterans — something already prompting change in the United States.
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The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs established the Airborne Hazards and Burn Pits Center of Excellence in 2019 to study the impacts of this practice.
Research suggests that American soldiers deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq during the War on Terror are four times more likely to develop cancer and respiratory illnesses like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease than the general population.
Last year, President Joe Biden led a successful effort to cover a wide range of cancers and respiratory conditions as presumptive conditions linked to burn pit exposure. That means if a veteran is diagnosed with one of those conditions, there is presumed to be a connection between their service and their diagnosis and they can get covered for treatment costs through veterans programs.
“Toxic smog thick with poison spread through the air and into the lungs of our troops. When they came home, many of the fittest and best warriors that we sent to war were not the same. Headaches, numbness, dizziness, cancer. My son Beau, was one of them,” Biden said in August 2022.
Joseph “Beau” Biden died of glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, in 2015 at the age of 46. He was a major in the Delaware National Guard and had served in Iraq.
Grewal is advocating for Canada to take similar steps as the Americans but doesn’t believe there is much work on the issue. He says his organization has reached out to Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) and the military to raise the matter, but says little appears to change.
In an emailed response, a spokesperson from VAC says that they are following American research and work around legislation to guarantee health coverage for presumptive illnesses linked to burn pits.
They add the last time VAC examined the issue was with veterans of the Gulf War, which ran from 1990-1991.
“While VAC has not conducted any studies on the effects of burn pits in Afghanistan, we have previously examined the mortality rates of Veterans deployed to the Persian Gulf, some of whom were also exposed to burn pits. These studies found no difference between the mortality rate of Veterans who were deployed and those who were not deployed,” their statement reads.
The spokesperson concludes that they encourage any veteran who may have contracted an illness or injury linked to service way be eligible for compensation, and this is handled on a case-by-case basis.
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