How to Stop Burn Pits From Becoming the Next Agent Orange

As veterans complain of health impacts from toxic fumes, advocates warn that burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan might come back to haunt the administration.

National Journal
Jordain Carney
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Jordain Carney
July 10, 2014, 3:35 p.m.

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.”

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