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Veterans say toxic fumes from burn pits on bases abroad have led to more breast cancer at home — and battles with VA for benefits

Veterans battle breast cancer and the VA
Veterans exposed to burn pits battle breast cancer and the VA 02:03

Alexandria, Virginia — An alarming rise in breast cancer among military veterans is reigniting concern about burn pits on overseas military bases. Women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan say they face a higher risk of cancer from exposure to the pits' toxic fumes.

On Veterans Day, the Biden administration announced it's committed to doing more to enable access to services and benefits for individuals potentially exposed to hazardous materials. 

In August the Department of Veterans Affairs listed asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis as conditions with a presumptive link to exposure. The White House wants a review to determine whether there's evidence of a connection for rare respiratory cancers and constrictive bronchiolitis. The White House has directed the VA to provide recommendations about new presumptions within 90 days. 

However, lawmakers and advocates are pushing for a range of cancers to be included, as a growing number of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan sound the alarm about toxic exposure. 

Marine veteran Kate Hendricks Thomas never imagined a battle with stage four breast cancer, a reality she's had to share with her seven-year-old son, Matthew.

"We've started to tell him the truth that, you know, Mommy has a terminal condition and it is going to kill her, but that she'll always be with you," she said.

Marine veteran Kate Hendricks Thomas CBS News

Hendricks Thomas learned of her diagnosis four years ago at age 38, more than a decade after returning home from her deployment in Iraq.

"I was seeing my nurse practitioner for an annual exam and she said, 'I want you to go get a mammogram based on where you've been stationed,'" Hendricks Thomas recalled. "She said 'we're seeing a lot of breast cancer in veteran women — I want you to go.'"

"The radiologist said it looked like I had been dipped in something," Thomas added.

Hendricks Thomas, who has no family history of breast cancer, didn't realize danger was lurking on base in the form of burn pits commonly used on overseas bases to get rid of waste.

"Most of the time when I was at Fallujah, I didn't think about any kind of toxic exposure risk," she said. "I knew we had a burn pit. I knew when we cleaned out our AC unit it was full of black stuff, and we all kind of joked that's what we're breathing, isn't that gross."

It's estimated at least 230 burn pits were used at bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. They used jet fuel to ignite the waste.

"When you burn plastics, when you burn computers, when you burn hazardous materials … you have hundreds of toxic chemicals that can be inhaled into a person's body," said Congressman Raul Ruiz, a California Democrat who's also a doctor.

"As a physician, I was irate that this self-inflicted wound by the Department of Defense employing these burn pits. … By the way, open fires and burn pits are illegal in the United States for exactly the reasons that they are hazardous to individuals' health," Ruiz pointed out.

A burn pit on an overseas U.S. military base. CBS News

He began working on burn pit legislation after hearing the story of Jennifer Kepner, an Air Force veteran in his district who battled pancreatic cancer. He helped her fight the VA for benefits before she died in 2017.

"Right now, the VA puts the burden of proof on the veterans," Ruiz said of the claims process. "Right now, we have too many veterans who are dying because of our military self-inflicted wounds," he continued.

Ruiz has been working on bipartisan, bicameral legislation that would make it easier for veterans to access benefits by including cancers among the illnesses that are considered to have a presumed link to burn pits. Currently, veterans are required to prove a direct service connection.

Hendricks Thomas, who also has a doctorate in health care, says it took her three years to finally get her claim approved after it was initially denied.

"There is a true cost to war, when you send people to war there is a true cost to that," she said. "Part of it is handling the veterans benefits and health care when people come home, and it's our responsibility as a country that we have these exposure risks in Iraq and Afghanistan and take care of the people coming home sick because of that."

The VA said from June 2007 through September 30, 2021, nearly 15,000 veterans claimed conditions specifically related to burn pit exposure. In new statistics provided by the VA to CBS News, of the more than 55,000 deployed veterans of the Global War on Terror who filed cancer claims, more than 53were denied. 

The VA said it's identified over 600 veterans who deployed during recent wars who have filed a claim for military service-connected breast cancer. Of those claims, the VA said, benefits were granted for around 56%.

While the VA said studies have not found increased rates of breast cancer, other research has shown incidents of breast cancer among female service members is 20% to 40% higher than in the civilian population.    

"I think that the VA and the DOD need to, in good faith, do some research on incidence rates of breast cancer in women veterans and admit that we have this problem right now," said Hendricks Thomas. "My hope would be that we take care of the women veterans who need our care and our support, and they need it at a younger age than their civilian counterparts."

The VA has set up a burn pit registry to track the issue of burn pit exposure.

Claims can be filed here.

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