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The Toxic Legacy of Military Burn Pits

Panel featuring veterans, advocates, and medical expert examined issue that affects an estimated 200,000+ individuals who deployed to Southwest Asia during the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.

This year’s Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Distinguished Speakers Series at Harvard Law School featured featured a keynote address by U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) followed by a panel discussion on burn pits and efforts to provide meaningful support and benefits for members of the military and veterans experiencing adverse health effects from burn pit exposures. Watch the event recording below.

The DAV Distinguished Speaker Series is sponsored by the DAV Charitable Service Trust, and hosted by Harvard Law School, the Veterans Legal Clinic of the WilmerHale Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, and the Harvard Law School Student Armed Forces Association.

It’s estimated that more than 200,000 people who deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the region may suffer from chronic, and, in some cases, deadly health problems, ranging from lung damage to rare cancers as a result of exposure to burn pits—large fires the military has used for many years to dispose of garbage in combat theatres.

Research dating back as far as 2004 has shown links between burn pits and significant health problems. In 2013, Congress ordered VA to establish an Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry so that veterans could record symptoms and better track health data. Advocacy campaigns by DAV and other veterans’ organizations—in partnership recently with comedian and political activist Jon Stewart and a coalition of Sept. 11 first responders—have urged Congress and VA to provide those harmed by burn pits the care and compensation they need and have earned through their military service. This past November, President Biden—who has publicly blamed the death of his son Beau from brain cancer on burn pits—ordered VA to examine potential links between toxic exposure and rare cancers.

Sen. Gillibrand’s talk and the panel discussion touched on the significant adverse health effects of burn pits on thousands who served in the Iraq and Afghan wars, and efforts to pass meaningful legislation to take care of those harmed by burn pits.

Sen. Gillibrand was joined on the panel by:

  • Shane Liermann, Deputy National Legislative Director at DAV; Marine Corps veteran

  • Anthony M. Szema, M.D., a leading expert on the health impacts of burn pit exposures. Dr. Szema is Clinical Associate Professor of Occupational Medicine, Epidemiology, and Prevention, and Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine (Divisions of Pulmonary/Critical Care and Allergy/Immunology), Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell. He is also Research Assistant Professor, Department of Technology and Society, College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Stony Brook University.

  • Rosie Torres and Le Roy Torres, co-founders of Burn Pits 360. Rosie Torres is the organization’s Executive Director. Mr. Torres is a veteran of the Iraq War.

Edward R. “Randy” Reese, Jr., Executive Director of DAV’s National Service and Legislative Headquarters and a veteran of the Persian Gulf War, provided opening remarks.

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