The Obama administration prides itself on righting the sins of past regimes, including expanding access to health care for Vietnam veterans who suffered from exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange.
But veterans groups worry the administration is on track to repeat past mistakes by refusing thousands of disability claims that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans say are related to breathing toxic fumes from open burn pits — which were used for years to discard everything from trash and human waste to vehicles and batteries.
The Veterans Affairs Department finally opened a congressionally mandated online registry for burn-pit victims late last month, and lawmakers are starting to look at how to move forward on helping veterans who believe their illnesses — ranging from bronchitis to cancer — are tied to exposure to the fumes.
Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico is working on legislation that requires the VA to establish a research network to study the impact of open burn pits on soldiers and veterans. And Sen. Bob Corker — who previously worked with Udall to spearhead burn-pit legislation in the Senate — said that "the VA must ensure this law is implemented effectively and fix any remaining problems with the online Open Burn Pit Registry."
Corker notes that with the ongoing health care scandal, the "credibility of the Veterans Affairs [is] already on the line."
On the other side of the Hill, legislation introduced last year has stalled. Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop of New York wants the Defense Department to create three "centers of excellence" where ailments from burn-pit exposure would be studied, diagnosed, and treated.
"I'm trying to build cosponsors for that, so that we can show the leadership that this is an issue that has pretty strong bipartisan support," Bishop said. He calls measures to boost the ability to study and treat illnesses tied to exposure "the next logical step." But with the clock running down on the 113th Congress, Bishop acknowledged that the proposal might have to be reintroduced next year.
In the meantime, veterans can use the VA's online registry — if they can get access to it — to document their exposure to burn pits and other airborne hazards, including health concerns that they have.
And though using the registry won't help veterans in their current battles to get disability pay from the VA, the administration is hoping to use the voluntary sign-ups to help document and track exposure.
"When we have things like metal showing up in people's lungs, and acute respiratory problems "¦ it's worth asking questions now to figure that out," said Tom Tarantino, the policy director at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and a former Army captain.
Bishop and Tarantino worry that without proper attention, exposure to burn pits could turn into this generation's Agent Orange. Veterans of the Vietnam War, where Agent Orange was frequently used as an herbicide, waited decades for the VA to recognize that their illnesses were caused by the chemical.
Advocates are hoping the VA will learn from its past mistakes and take a more proactive approach to trying to figure out the potential health impact of burn pits.
"Sort of my mantra is that we don't want burn-pit exposure to become the Agent Orange of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars," Bishop said. "One of the reasons that I and a couple of other members of Congress jumped on this when we did is to try to forestall that from happening."
Research on burn-pits exposure is lagging, and the findings have been mixed.
The VA, for its part, believes that most illnesses that could be tied to burn-pit exposure are temporary and tend to go away once a soldier gets away from them.
"Research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits at this time," the VA says on its website.
And a 2011 study by the Institute of Medicine — which the VA relies heavily upon to determine what illnesses it considers service-related — found "insufficient evidence" to make a hard link between burn-pit exposure and long-term health effects. But the institute recommended a longer study "to determine their incidence of chronic diseases, including cancers, that tend to not show up for decades."
A study by Anthony Szema, an assistant professor at Stony Brook School of Medicine, found that the type of material being burned has been linked to a whole host of diseases. For example, Szema told lawmakers as early as 2009 that burning cardboard has been linked to neurological disorders, plastic bottles to deficiencies in the immune system, and particle boards or plywood to certain types of cancers.
The Defense Department publicly falls in line with the VA. The Pentagon backs further research but doesn't think that burn pits have long-term health impacts. A leaked 2011 Army memo, however, paints a different picture.
Studying exposure to air pollution at an air base in Afghanistan, the internal memo found that "there is a potential that long-term exposure ... may increase the risk for developing chronic health conditions such as reduced lung function or exacerbated chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, atherosclerosis, or other cardiopulmonary diseases."
The main cause of the pollution at the base? A burn pit, according to the report.
"I have been disappointed that the official position of the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs is that there is no conclusive evidence to link burn-pit exposure with the ailments that so many who have been exposed to burn pits are now presenting," Bishop said. He added that there is a "pretty good body of evidence" that suggests there is a link between exposure and certain illnesses.
And it's the contradiction between the government's public stance and anecdotal evidence from veterans — including stories collected on the Burn Pits 360 website — that Tarantino said is a sign that more research needs to be done.
A key focus is trying to determine if metals — which have been linked to cancers — found in the lungs of soldiers returning from Iraq, in particular, are linked to burn pits or dust or both.
"We're kind of dragging them in kicking and screaming into this," Tarantino said of the administration. "But we are dragging them."