Is Sleep Apnea Related to Burn Pits?
Posted by Berry Law on January 20, 2022 in Appeals
Throughout the Iraq war and similar conflicts, the US military frequently used burn pits to eliminate toxic and standard waste. While burn pits may have been convenient waste disposal methods at the time, they may have inadvertently exposed servicemembers to various toxins and poisons.
Over time, many military Veterans developed conditions like sleep apnea, which can affect sleep quality and pose a significant respiratory threat. Some Veterans believe that their exposure to burn pits may have contributed to or directly caused their sleep apnea.
So, is sleep apnea related to burn pits, or is the condition caused by other factors? Let’s answer this question and more in a detailed breakdown.
What Are/Were Burn Pits?
Burn pits were any open areas that the US military would historically use to dispose of waste or hazardous materials when needed. As opposed to landfills, burn pits were used repeatedly, resulting in toxic materials or waste spewed into the atmosphere and surrounding areas.
Some burn pits were very small, while others were as large as football fields or several acres of land. Burn pits would be used to remove waste, including but not limited to paint, rubber, metal, food, chemicals, human and medical waste, petroleum, lubricants, aluminum cans, plastics, and more.
As you might expect, frequently burning these materials released toxins into the air, water, and soil. These toxins may have affected service personnel and civilians in several ways. However, studies are still ongoing about the full effects of burn pits and any conditions or injuries they may be directly or partially responsible for.
What Is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a chronic and possibly dangerous sleep disorder characterized by someone’s breathing stopping and starting repeatedly. It’s often associated with loud snoring and exhaustion even after getting a full night’s rest.
Technically, there are three main types of sleep apnea, including:
- Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type. It occurs when your throat muscles relax, which can cause blockages or difficulty breathing while unconscious.
- Central sleep apnea occurs if the brain doesn’t send the right signals to certain muscles that control the breathing reflex.
- Complex sleep apnea syndrome is also called treatment-emergent central sleep apnea. This occurs if someone has both of the above two types of sleep apnea combined.
Typically, sleep apnea is diagnosed by a doctor after a person complains of ongoing fatigue or their partner complains about loud snoring and repeated adjustments or discomfort while they are asleep.
The symptoms of sleep apnea include but are not limited to:
- Gasping for air in the middle of sleep
- Having dry mouth when you awaken
- Headaches, especially in the morning
- Loud snoring
- Short episodes in which you stop breathing while asleep
- Insomnia or difficulty staying asleep
- Irritability or mood swings
Is Sleep Apnea Caused by Burn Pit Exposure?
Possibly. Several studies link exposure to the chemicals and fumes of burn pits with sleep apnea and similar respiratory conditions.
Exactly why burn pit exposure may cause sleep apnea is not fully understood. However, the reasons may be different for each type of sleep apnea experienced. For example:
- Obstructive sleep apnea could be caused when toxins from burn pits relax the muscles in the throat. Consequently, a Veteran’s airways may narrow or close when they inhale, lowering oxygen levels in the blood.
- The toxins from burn pits could cause central sleep apnea if brain injuries are sustained as a result. Central sleep apnea is caused when the brain doesn’t transmit the right signals to breathing muscles. Brain damage, therefore, may also be associated with such developments or exposure to burn pit toxins.
Other Conditions Caused by Burn Pits
While burn pits may lead to the development of sleep apnea in some Veterans, other conditions are connected to or proven to be caused by burn pit toxins. These include but are not limited to:
- Cancer, especially respiratory cancer, prostate cancer, and soft tissue sarcoma
- Skin problems, which can occur if a service member’s skin is exposed to burn pit toxins over long periods
- Bronchitis, characterized by the bronchial tubes’ lining becoming inflamed
- Pulmonary conditions like lung disease
- Cardiovascular problems like heart disease
- Additional respiratory problems
- Neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease, peripheral neuropathy, and stroke
Studies are ongoing to determine the specific connections between burn pit toxin absorption or inhalation and the development of chronic conditions. Because of this, many Veterans may experience potential symptoms from their time spent in burn pits or from other conditions or aspects of their service.
Burn Pit Registry – What You Need To Know
Any Veteran who wishes to potentially qualify for disability benefits after being exposed to burn pit toxins should sign up for the burn pit registry.
The burn pit registry helps Veterans accurately document their symptoms or health conditions related to burn pit toxin exposure. The goal of the burn pit registry is to collect information from multiple sources about respiratory and other illnesses to help scientists determine what connections, if any, exist between chronic illnesses and burn pits.
You do not have to sign up for the burn pit registry. However, it provides many benefits, including that it requires you to gather vital information for any future disability benefits claim.
Only Veterans deployed on or after August 2, 1990, or on or after September 11, 2001, in areas with registered burn pits can qualify for the list. Qualifying areas include Qatar, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf of Oman.
Is Sleep Apnea a Presumptive Condition?
Sleep apnea is not considered a presumptive condition by the VA at this time. As a result, you do not automatically qualify for benefits if you have sleep apnea and served in an area with one or more burn pits.
The only three presumptive conditions for service in the area where the military used burn pits are asthma, sinusitis, and rhinitis. But you can still be service connected for conditions that are not presumptively connected.
It may still be possible to acquire benefits for sleep apnea as a secondary or related condition to one of the above three conditions. For example, if a Veteran has asthma and receives benefits for that condition, they may be able to relate their sleep apnea to asthma and receive additional benefits as a result.
You may also be able to prove that the use of burn pits caused you sleep apnea. The evidence would just depend on your specific condition. Cases like this are entirely Veteran specific. We recommend you discuss your case further with an experienced attorney at Berry Law.
How To Get Disability Benefits for Sleep Apnea
Although the VA does not yet recognize sleep apnea as a presumptive condition to burn pit toxin exposure, you may still be able to acquire disability benefits.
Veterans must still apply for benefits in the usual way, providing materials and proof like:
- Medical records
- Doctors’ notes
- Other forms of proof showcasing their condition
- Service records proving that they were present at military bases or other sites with burn pits
To acquire military disability benefits, Veterans must prove that a service-connected event or tour of duty was responsible for their disabling condition or illness/injury. For example, a Veteran must prove that their sleep apnea did not begin until after they were exposed to burn pit toxins.
Veterans may also be able to strengthen their cases for benefits using evidence like:
- No family history of sleep apnea
- No record of sleep apnea before burn pit exposure
- Records of other Veterans serving in the same area also developing sleep apnea
- And much more
Naturally, gathering all this evidence and preparing it for an airtight VA benefits application can be time-consuming and difficult. That’s why hiring a lawyer is always a wise idea.
Berry Law is a Veteran-focused law office dedicated to helping Veterans just like you acquire the full disability benefits they deserve for past military service.
Not only can we help you file for disability because of your sleep apnea, but we may also be able to assist with receiving disability benefits due to your exposure to burn pits. We don’t believe that it’s a coincidence that many Veterans developed sleep apnea after being exposed to various toxins.
We’ve already helped several Veterans acquire compensation for sleep apnea and related respiratory conditions, including those who were exposed to burn pit toxins during their years of active service. Contact us today for more information and a free consultation.
10 Things to Know About Burn Pits | VA.gov
Sleep Apnea | NHLBI, NIH
Burn pit exposure in military personnel: is there an effect on sleep-disordered breathing? | NCBI
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