The VA has many benefits, programs, and services related to different hazardous environmental exposures. The first step to getting these benefits and services is to know which exposures may have affected you. In this section, you will learn about common exposures and some of the health effects associated with them.
Presumptive conditions are health conditions that the VA has already decided are linked to a particular environmental hazard or a period of service where you would have been exposed to environmental hazards. This means that if you have qualifying military service and a presumptive condition, you don’t have to prove your condition is service-connected to get VA disability compensation.
Agent Orange and Other Herbicides
“Agent Orange” is a catch-all term that represents a number of different herbicides the military sprayed, for tactical reasons, from 1962 to 1971, during Operation Ranch Hand. These herbicides were sprayed to kill trees and dense tropical foliage that provided cover for enemy forces during the Vietnam War. The name Agent Orange came from the orange stripe that was used on the containers in which it was stored.
Some diseases have been presumptively connected to exposure to Agent Orange. If you were in a specific location during a specific time, and you currently have one of those diseases, the VA will presume that it is the result of your exposure to Agent Orange.
For purposes of disability compensation, the VA presumes that you were exposed to Agent Orange or other herbicides if you served in Vietnam anytime between January 9, 1962, and May 7, 1975, including brief visits ashore or service aboard a ship that operated on the inland waterways of Vietnam. You will also be presumed to have been exposed if you were in or near the Korean demilitarized zone anytime between April 1, 1968, and August 31, 1971.
If you have a disability connected to your military service, then you are eligible for VA Health Care. Even if you don’t have a disability connected to your service, but you served in Vietnam between January 9, 1962, and May 7, 1975, you are eligible for VA Health Care.
The VA’s current list of diseases presumptively related to exposure to Agent Orange includes diabetes type II, ischemic heart disease, and prostate cancer. For a full list of current presumptive diseases, click here.
If you were in the country of Vietnam between July 1, 1965, and August 1, 1966, and you currently have diabetes type II, the VA will presume that your diabetes is related to your service in Vietnam and you will most likely be eligible for VA disability compensation.
If you have a disease or illness that has not been presumptively connected or you were not in the outlined locations during the prescribed time frames, you must show an actual connection between your disease and exposure to an herbicide during military service.
For more information on disability compensation, read the Vets101 article on VA Disability Compensation.
Children who have certain birth defects and are biological children of Vietnam veterans and born after their parent’s qualifying service in Vietnam or Korea may be eligible for VA compensation, health care, and vocational training. To learn more about benefits for children with birth defects, click here.
Even if you don’t meet any of these requirements, you may still be eligible for VA Health Care. For more information, read the VB 101 article on VA Health Care and Eligibility.
Agent Orange Registry Exam
The Agent Orange Registry exam is a free health exam that includes an exposure history, medical history, physical exam, and any tests that are needed. You can get additional registry exams if new problems develop. You do not have to be enrolled in the VA health care system to participate.
Open-air burn pits have been used widely at military sites in Iraq and Afghanistan. Exposure to smoke from open-air burn pits, particularly from the burning of certain types of waste, may cause certain health effects. Types of waste that may have harmful effects when burned includes, but is not limited to, chemicals, paint, medical and human waste, metal/aluminum cans, munitions and other unexploded ordnance, petroleum and lubricant products, plastics and Styrofoam, rubber, wood, and discarded food. For more information, click here.
If you believe that you have an illness or disease related to exposure to burn pits, you may qualify for VA disability compensation. However, no diseases are currently presumed to be a result of exposure to smoke from burn pits.
Camp Lejeune Drinking Water
From the 1950s through the 1980s, people living or working at the U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, may have been exposed to drinking water that was contaminated with industrial solvents, benzene, and other chemicals. Veterans and family members who served on active duty or lived at Camp Lejeune for 30 days or more between January 1, 1957, and December 31, 1987, are eligible for VA Medical Care for 15 health conditions.
Health care for conditions related to Camp Lejeune drinking water is available for veterans who are enrolled in the VA health care system. If you are not enrolled, call 1-877-222-8387 for help.
Currently, Congress has authorized care for family members who were exposed, but has not provided any money to pay for their care. They will be able to get care if Congress provides money for their care in the future.
Gulf War Veterans’ Medically Unexplained Illnesses
Popularly known as Gulf War Syndrome, some veterans of the first Gulf War suffer from a cluster of medically unexplained chronic symptoms. These symptoms can include fatigue, headaches, joint pain, indigestion, insomnia, dizziness, respiratory disorders, and memory problems.
For purposes of disability compensation, VA presumes that certain chronic, unexplained symptoms that last for six months or more are related to Gulf War service. That means that you don’t have to show the link between your current illness and your military service if you meet all of the requirements. These illnesses must have appeared while you were on active duty in the Southwest Asia theater of military operations, or by December 31, 2016, and must be rated by the VA to be at least 10% disabling.
If you served in the in Southwest Asia theater of operations during the first Gulf War starting August 2, 1990, through the conflict in Iraq, and on or after September 19, 2001, or in Afghanistan, you may have been exposed to endemic infectious diseases that may cause serious long-term health consequences. For more information about these diseases, click here.
For the purposes of disability compensation, veterans who currently have disabilities as a result of those diseases may be presumed to have those disabilities as a result of their military service. To benefit from these presumptions, you must meet all of the requirements for that disease.
For example, Shigella is a condition with symptoms such as fever, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. To benefit from the presumption, the disease must be at least 10% disabling within one year of the date of your separation from the military. If you don’t meet those requirements, you can still get disability compensation, but you will need to prove that your disability is due to your military service — the connection will not be presumed.
Gulf War Registry Health Exam
If you served during the 1990 – 1991 Gulf War, Operation Desert Shield, Operation Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom, or Operation New Dawn, you can get a Gulf War Registry exam. The purpose of the exam is to look for possible long-term health problems that might be related to service in the Gulf. You don’t have to be enrolled in the VA’s health care system to get this free exam.
You can click here read reports from the Institute of Medicine, which were commissioned by the VA. Click here to read reports by the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses (RAC), which were requested by Congress.
The VA recognizes several types of radiation exposure, including radiation-risk activity related to atomic detonations (includes Atomic Veterans); military occupational exposure to radiation; and depleted uranium exposure (discussed in depth in the following section). For information about these types of exposure, and to learn how the VA decides that you’ve been exposed to radiation, click here.
For veterans who participated in radiation-risk activity during service, the VA assumes that certain cancers are related to their exposure. Veterans with these cancers don’t have to prove a connection between their diseases and their service to be eligible for disability compensation.
If you were exposed to radiation during military service and develop any form of cancer, nonmalignant thyroid nodular disease, parathyroid adenoma, posterior subcapsular cataracts, or tumors of the brain and central nervous system and meet other requirements, you may be able to get disability compensation on a case-by-case basis. Your eligibility depends on how much radiation you received and other factors, such as the period of time between exposure to radiation and the development of the disease. The VA will also consider the possibility that other diseases not on this list were caused by radiation, if supported by medical or scientific evidence.
The VA provides special enrollment in the VA’s health care system for veterans who were exposed to ionizing radiation during atmospheric testing or during the occupation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and have an other than dishonorable discharge.
Veterans who meet eligibility requirements are also able to get a health exam as part of the Ionizing Radiation Registry exam. These exams are free and enrollment in the VA health care system is not required.
You can learn about specific U.S. atmospheric nuclear tests from the Nuclear Test Personnel Review Program (NTPR) by clicking here. To learn about exposures to depleted uranium (DU), click here. You can also get more information from the National Association of Atomic Veterans (NAAV).
Depleted Uranium (DU)
If you served in the Gulf War, Bosnia, Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), or Operation New Dawn (OND) or after combat operations, you may have been exposed to depleted uranium (DU).
The U.S. military uses tank armor and some bullets made with DU, a by-product of the process used to enrich uranium. DU makes metals stronger and helps munitions to penetrate enemy armored vehicles. When a projectile made with DU penetrates a vehicle, small pieces of DU can scatter and become embedded in a person’s muscle and soft tissue. In addition to DU in wounds, soldiers who are exposed to DU while in vehicles that are struck may inhale or swallow small airborne DU particles.
This exposure may have happened if you were on, in, or near vehicles hit with "friendly fire,” if you entered or were near burning vehicles or other targets hit with DU munitions, if you were near fires involving DU munitions or involved in postfire cleanup, or if you salvaged vehicles or other targets hit with DU munitions. You may also have been exposed at Vieques Island, Puerto Rico, and other DU test sites.
DU exposure may be associated with long-term health problems. Click here for more information about how you might have been exposed, and possible health effects.
If you believe that you have an illness or disease related to exposure to DU, you may qualify for VA disability compensation. However, no diseases are currently presumed to be a result of exposure to DU. The VA and the Department of Defense (DoD) have started the Depleted Uranium Follow-Up Program to screen and monitor veterans for health problems associated with exposure to DU. To qualify for this program, you must have performed active duty service in any of the following:
- 1990 – 1991 Gulf War
- Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF)
- Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF)
- Operation New Dawn (OND)
The DU Follow-Up Program is especially geared to veterans who were on, in, or near vehicles hit with “friendly fire;" rescuers entering burning vehicles and those near burning vehicles; salvaging damaged vehicles; or near fires involving DU munitions.
Toxic Embedded Fragments
An embedded fragment — often called shrapnel — is a piece of metal or other material, like plastic, that stays in the body after an injury. These fragments may be described as “toxic” because they are made of harmful materials. The VA recognizes that toxic embedded fragments may have long-term health effects. For more information, click here.
Project 112/Project Shad
The Department of Defense (DoD) conducted chemical and biological warfare tests on servicemembers during Project 112 and Project SHAD. These tests exposed troops to harmful chemicals and biological warfare agents.
The DoD has fact sheets for each test, which include information on test dates, location, agent/stimulant used, and whether DoD has given the VA the list of personnel involved. The VA also gives information on possible long-term health effects of participation in Project SHAD. For more information about the tests and the health effects, click here.
Thermal Injuries (Cold and Heat Injuries)
Servicemembers exposed to extreme cold are at risk of thermal injuries, such as frostbite and hypothermia. For more information about cold injuries, long-term health effects, and available benefits, click here.
Troops exposed to extreme heat are at risk of thermal injuries, such as heat stroke and heat exhaustion. For more information about heat injuries, long-term health effects, and available benefits, click here.
Occupational and Environmental Exposures
An unknown number of troops have been exposed to occupational and other environmental hazards in the course of service. Some of these hazards include asbestos in places such as Navy vessels, CARC paint on military vehicles, chromium, lead, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Some troops in Operation Iraqi Freedom were exposed to hexavalent chromium at the Qarmat Ali Water Treatment Facility in Iraq, with possible health effects.
To learn more about Chemical Agent Resistant Coating (CARC), and its possible health effects, click here.
During military service, you may have been exposed to physical hazards, which can result in health problems. Two common hazards include noise exposure and vibration exposure. To learn more about vibration exposure in the Navy, click here. Other physical exposures include injuries that happen when the pressure in the body differs from the surrounding environment (hyperbaric and hypobaric environments) and injuries from blast overpressure, including traumatic brain injury (TBI).