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What are burn pits? Explaining a key aspect of Biden's visit to North Texas

If you're not in the military, you might be unfamiliar with burn pits. But they're playing a key role in Biden's agenda for veterans healthcare.

FORT WORTH, Texas — President Joe Biden visits North Texas on Tuesday, and he'll have a main issue on his agenda: Addressing the effects that burn pits have had on veterans.

Biden is visiting the Fort Worth VA Clinic and Tarrant County Resource Connection center, where he'll speak with veterans about "the health effects of environmental exposures such as burn pits," White House officials said this week.

Biden also addressed burn pits during his State of the Union speech last week. 

But if you're not in the military, you might be unfamiliar with burn pits, and you might be hearing about them for the first time.

WFAA has covered the issue extensively, going back several years.

Here's what we know.

What are burn pits? 

Burn pits were used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan to dispose of tires, batteries, medical waste and other materials.

At bases in both battlefields, the U.S. military would pile its waste in one area and set it ablaze using either diesel or jet fuel.

The fires incinerated not only daily trash like paper, but also plastics, tires, batteries, broken rifles, unspent ammunition and old engine parts.

The heavy black smoke would waft across the area, and troops often had no choice but to inhale it, WFAA reported in 2019. 

RELATED: Stop collecting burn pit data and start treating troops, veterans demand of the V.A.

Were burn pits toxic? 

Biden brought up the issue of burn pits in his State of the Union by saying his son, Beau, who died of cancer, may have been among the many veterans who suffered from toxic exposure injuries from burn pits.

Dr. Daniel Brewer, the military’s chief environmental engineer for Afghanistan and Iraq, told WFAA in 2019 that he saw asbestos, hazardous waste, medical waste and more being incinerated in these open landfills.

All of it created black smoke containing carcinogens and vaporized metals, Brewer said.

“This didn’t look like a good practice, and I told them so,” he said. “A lot of times they’d burn the really bad stuff at night. The problem is people are sleeping at night in the tents and stuff and they’re just breathing these fumes all night long and don’t even know it.”

Le Roy Torres, a retired U.S. Army captain who was deployed in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, told WFAA in 2019 that he had been diagnosed with a toxic brain injury. 

Torres complained of almost a decade of headaches, memory and concentration issues.

Listen to this week's episode of Y'all-itics about Torres' experience with burn pits:

What is the VA doing about the effects of burn pits?

In 2013, the VA was mandated to create a Burn Pit registry – a list of all veterans who now suffer adverse health effects from the military fires. 

But veterans have pushed federal officials to go beyond just collecting data about the impacts of burn pits. They want action toward addressing their healthcare needs.

During a speech at the Fort Worth VA Tuesday, March 8, Department of Veteran Affairs Secretary Dennis McDonough acknowledged there need to be more care for veterans exposed to burn pits. 

Last week, the U.S. House approved a bill that would dramatically boost health care services and disability benefits for veterans who were exposed to the burn pits.

RELATED: House backs bill to help veterans exposed to toxic burn pits

If passed into law, it would increase spending by more than $300 billion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

On Tuesday, Biden delivered remarks about "expanding access to health care and benefits for veterans effected by environmental exposures," a White House release said. 

WFAA will stream Biden's arrival in Fort Worth, around 1 p.m. Tuesday, along with his remarks at Tarrant County Resource Connection, around 2:30 p.m. Watch on WFAA.com or the WFAA app.

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