Jon Stewart: Congress is abandoning veterans exposed to toxic 'burn pits'

Stewart is supporting a new bill that aims to extend health care and disability benefits to veterans who served alongside burn pits.

Jon Stewart on stage

Jon Stewart performs onstage during the 13th annual Stand Up for Heroes to benefit the Bob Woodruff Foundation at The Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden on November 04, 2019 in New York City

Credit: Bryan Bedder / Getty
  • Thousands of American veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan were exposed to burn pits, which may have caused diseases like asthma and cancer.
  • Burn pits were used as a crude way to dispose of waste, including plastics, body parts, dead animals, and hazardous chemicals.
  • Despite gaps in the research linking exposure to medical conditions, advocates say the benefit of the doubt should go to veterans.

Plastics, medical waste, rubber, hazardous chemicals, human feces, batteries, dead animals, and amputated limbs.

These are some of the things that were routinely doused in jet fuel and set ablaze in massive "burn pits" near U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some pits burned more than 140 tons of trash a day, launching into the sky thick plumes of smoke visible from miles away.

For more than a decade, thousands of American soldiers who served next to these pits have developed serious medical conditions, such as asthma or cancer, that may have been caused by inhaling toxic fumes. Some veterans have filed disability claims, but the Department of Veterans Affairs has denied most.

One reason is that it's hard for veterans to establish causation: How do they know their illness wasn't caused by something else, like inhaling dust and sand from the desert? And, can veterans prove they were next to specific burn pits on specific dates?

Some veterans advocates say it's unjust to place such a high burden of proof on veterans in need of medical care. Or, as comedian and advocate Jon Stewart said Tuesday at an event on Capitol Hill, "It's bullshit."

"Welcome to another exciting episode of 'When is America going to start acting like the great country we keep telling ourselves we are?'" Stewart said at the news conference. "Our veterans lived 24 hours a day, seven days a week next to toxic smoke, dioxins -- everything. And now they're being told, 'Hey man, is that stuff bad for you? I don't know, we don't have the science.' It's bulls***. It's bulls***. It's about money."

The former "Daily Show" host was there to support a new bill called the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act of 2020, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif. The bill would give medical coverage and disability benefits to veterans who served next to a burn site and now suffer from a condition linked to the inhalation of toxins.

Stewart, who spent years pushing for legislation that ultimately extended health care coverage for 9/11 first-responders through 2092, said denying health care to veterans who were exposed to burn pits amounts to "gas-lighting."

"I'm not a doctor, I'm not a scientist. But, I'm also not an idiot. If you live next to a toxic smoke plume filled with cancer-causing elements, and you're breathing it in day in and day out, it's going to make you sick," Stewart told Fox News.

"Then, you're going to get home and people are going to tell you, just like they did with the 9/11 community, first, 'It's in your head, you're not really sick.' Second, 'OK, maybe you're sick, but had nothing to do with what that was.' And thirdly, they're going to say, 'OK, it is, but I don't know if we can afford all that,'" Stewart added. "You know, this is money. That's it. And, when you've got an F-35 that may never be battle-ready and it's going to be a cost overrun of about $1.4 trillion, and you're gas-lighting your own veterans on their health conditions because you don't want to pay for it? Criminal, and it has to stop."

The V.A. says "research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits" at this time.

"Most of the irritation is temporary and resolves once the exposure is gone," reads the V.A. website. "This includes eye irritation and burning, coughing and throat irritation, breathing difficulties, and skin itching and rashes."

"The high level of fine dust and pollution common in Iraq and Afghanistan may pose a greater danger for respiratory illnesses than exposure to burn pits, according to a 2011 Institute of Medicine report."

A lack of evidence?

Conclusive research on the links between burn-pit exposure and medical conditions is lacking.

But after the Vietnam War, there was also a lack of research on the health effects of exposure to Agent Orange. In 1991, Congress passed the Agent Orange act, which extended health benefits to Vietnam veterans suffering from conditions linked to exposure. There was also an initial lack of evidence showing that 9/11 first-responders developed conditions like cancer after inhaling pulverized dust at Ground Zero.

While scientists continue to study the effects of burn-pit exposure, advocates say lawmakers should err on the side of extending health care to ailing veterans.

"If people were injured or affected and there's a plausible relationship or explanation for what's going on, the benefit of the doubt needs to go to the veteran," former V.A. Secretary Dr. David Shulkin said at the event on Tuesday. "To simply let people suffer and go without help from their government is not a satisfactory response."

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