Exposure to airborne toxins while on active duty may lead to breathing difficulties and respiratory illnesses that begin during active duty or after returning home. Airborne toxins can include pollution, smoke from fires, chemicals in the air, and other hazards. You may be eligible for service-connected disability compensation for your respiratory illness.
Those who have served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars may have chronic bronchitis or shortness of breath or a rare respiratory illness, constrictive bronchiolitis. Veterans of the Vietnam War who were exposed to Agent Orange have often developed respiratory cancers. These, and many other respiratory disorders, are eligible for compensation through the VA.
Establishing Direct Service Connection for Respiratory Illness
To be eligible for disability compensation for a respiratory problem caused by service on the basis of direct service connection, you need to prove the condition was caused by your active duty. The following must be established to prove the disability is "service-connected":
- a current diagnosis of a respiratory illness
- evidence of an event in service that caused the illness, and
- medical evidence connecting the current respiratory condition to the event in service.
Presumptive Service Connection for Respiratory Illness
Sometimes veterans can be granted service connection for a respiratory illness with providing actual proof that the illness was caused by military service. This is called presumptive service connection. Eligibility requires at least 90 days of continuous service. Presumptive service connection is available for several respiratory illnesses, including tuberculosis, bronchiectasis, and coccidioidomycosis. For information about all of the diseases eligible for presumptive service connection, see the list of eligible diseases.
Veterans who were exposed to excessive radiation who have developed lung cancer, bronchiolo-alveolar carcinoma, or cancer of the pharynx are also eligible for benefits on the basis of presumptive service connection. To be eligible, during your service you must have participated in a "radiation risk activity." This includes participation in nuclear weapons testing, exposure to depleted uranium, or some other service-related exposure to radiation that is acknowledged by the VA.
Veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange or other herbicides who have developed respiratory cancer (cancer of the lung, bronchus, larynx, or trachea) are also eligible for benefits on the basis of presumptive service connection. In these cases, it isn’t necessary to prove that the herbicides caused the cancer as long as the veteran satisfies the VA criteria for exposure to Agent Orange. For more information about this, read Nolo’s article about Agent Orange and disability compensation.
When the requirements of presumptive service connection cannot be met, you can still obtain disability benefits on the basis of direct service connection (described above). See our article on the different ways to establish service-connection for the purpose of obtaining disability compensation.
How Respiratory Illnesses Are Evaluated by the VA
Respiratory illnesses are rated according to the VA Schedule of Ratings Disabilities under Section 4.97, diagnostic codes 6502 to 6847. Diseases listed in the schedule for which you can receive compensation include:
- deviated septum
- aphonia (difficulty speaking above a whisper or speaking at all)
- rhinitis (stuffy, running nose)
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) (causes difficulty breathing)
- pulmonary vascular disease (causes shortness of breath)
- bacterial infections in the lungs, and
- cancer, and
- sleep apnea.
Some common types of respiratory illnesses for veterans and their ratings are discussed in detail below.
Chronic bronchitis is rated based on air flow tests on your lungs, and available ratings are 10, 30, 60 or 100%.
Asthma is rated based on air flow tests plus how often you need medication and other therapy to treat it. If at the time you have your Compensation and Pension Exam you are not having asthma symptoms, you will need to provide medical evidence of a history of asthma attacks in order to receive disability compensation for your asthma.
Emphysema is rated on the basis of lung function tests and other factors such as whether you need to be on oxygen, and if so, how often you need to be on oxygen. Lower results on lung function tests will lead to higher ratings.
Sleep apnea is a condition many veterans seek disability compensation for. If you require the use of a CPAP machine, you are eligible for a rating of 50%. If you have a diagnosis of sleep apnea without any symptoms, you are entitled to a 0% rating only. If you consistently sleep excessively during the day (hypersomnolence), you may be eligible for a 30% rating.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
COPD is rated largely on the basis of the results of lung function tests. These tests measure the flow of air through your lungs. The lower the percentage of air flow, the higher your rating. Available ratings are 10, 30, 60 or 100%.
Pulmonary Vascular Disease
If you had pulmonary thromboembolism but it has resolved and you have no more symptoms, you can receive only a 0% rating. But if it resolves and you continue to have symptoms, you are entitled to be rated at 30%. Any secondary conditions you developed as a result of pulmonary thromboembolism such as chronic bronchitis is eligible for a separate and additional rating.
If your pulmonary vascular disease is chronic, you may be eligible for a 60% rating if you are on anticoagulant medication. More severe illnesses such as chronic pulmonary thrombolembolism can be eligible for a 100% rating, but this requires secondary illnesses such as hypertension.
Cancer is rated at 100% during treatment and will continue to be rated at 100% for six months after treatment ends. The VA will then schedule a reexamination to evaluate whether your disability rating should be decreased. If your cancer returns and you are retreated, you will again be returned to a 100% rating.
How to Apply for Disability Based on Respiratory Illness
You can apply for disability benefits online, by filling out an Application for Veterans Compensation and/or Pension, or by calling your VA regional office. To learn more about the application process, read our article on applying for VA disability benefits.