There is a new burn pit bill at the House of Representatives called the “Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act.” Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty introduced the bill for herself and for Congressman Jim McDermott. Congresswoman Esty’s press release details some of the concerns that led to her introduction of the bill:
Military personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are exposed to a variety of potentially harmful substances including the smoke produced from the burning of waste on military bases. Items such as plastics, aerosol cans, electronic equipment, human waste, metal containers, tires, and batteries are thrown into open pits, sometimes doused with jet fuel, and set ablaze. Smoke from these open-air burn pits can waft throughout the entire base and even into living areas. Health effects from exposure to chemicals found in burn pits can include cancer, neurological and reproductive effects, respiratory toxicity, and cardiovascular toxicity.
Compelling concerns, right? Near-term and long-term diseases can be caused by exposure to burn pits. Or, at least, that’s how I read Congresswoman Esty’s press release.
The VA’s Position:
The rub is that the Department of Veterans Affairs has taken the position that there “is not enough medical or scientific information to conclude that short or long-term health effects have occurred from exposures to smoke from burn pits or other airborne hazards during recent deployments.”
Further, the VA’s Public Health website states that the toxins in burn pit smoke may affect the skin, eyes, respiratory and cardiovasular systems, gastrointestinal tract and internal organs. The “but,” according the VA, is that most of the “eye irritation and burning, coughing and throat irritation, breathing difficulties, and skin itching and rashes” are “temporary and resolves once the exposure is gone.” Moreover, the “fine dust and pollution common in Iraq and Afghanistan may pose a greater danger for respiratory illnesses than exposure to burn pits.”
In support of its position, the VA cites to a 2011 Institute of Medicine report commissioned by the VA. Interestingly, the report rendered inconclusive results because more data was needed. The Institute of Medicine’s position in 2011 was that it can’t make bricks without clay.
Agent Orange of Our Generation:
Congresswoman Esty’s press release quotes James Rizzio, a six year veteran from the U.S. Army who served in Iraq from 2009 to 2010, as saying, “Burn pits are the Agent Orange of our generation.” That is a powerful sentiment, especially considering the VA’s position on the long-term effects of burn pit exposure.
Consider the early studies performed by the U.S. Air Force, particularly the “Ranch Hand Study,” which has been criticized by quite a few organizations and news publications:
When the first findings came out in 1984, it appeared that there were no significant differences in the health outcomes of the Ranch Hander and other service members. However, it was later revealed by the San Diego Union-Tribune that the Air Force had not released all the results from the study. According to the paper, the Ranch Handers were “less well” than the comparison group by a ration of 5 to 1. In addition, these veterans reported “significantly” more birth defects among their children.
There is no denying that the negative health effects of dangerous materials like Agent Orange was grossly underestimated in the past, only to come to light with greater attention and scrutiny. Whether the same will be true of burn pit exposures remains to be seen. But, there have been allegations that the VA is withholding medical findings in an attempt to skew results from medical research associated with burn pit exposures.
Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pit Act:
Congresswoman Esty’s new Act appears to be designed, at least in part, to develop the science behind burn pit exposures. The full text of the H.R. 2237 states:
To direct the Secretary of Veterans to establish within the Department of Veterans Affairs a center of excellence in the prevention, diagnosis, mitigation, treatment, and rehabilitation of health conditions relating to exposure to burn pits.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of American in Congress assembled,
Section 1. Short Title.
This Act may be cited as the “Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act”.
Section 2. Center of Excellence in Prevention, Diagnosis, Mitigation, Treatment, and Rehabilitation of Health Conditions Relating to Exposure to Burn Pits and Order Environmental Exposures.
(a) Establishment.–The Secretary of Veterans Affairs shall establish within the Department of Veterans Affairs a center of excellence in the prevention, diagnosis, mitigation, treatment, and rehabilitation of health conditions relating to exposure to burn pits and other environmental exposures to carry out the responsibilities specified in subsection (d). Such center shall be established using–
(1) the directives, policies, and Comptroller General and Inspector General recommendations in effect as of the date of the enactment of this Act; and
(2) guidance issued pursuant to section 313 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 . . . .
(b) Selection of Sites.–In selecting the site for the center of excellence established under subsection (a), the Secretary of Veterans Affairs shall consider entities that–
(1) are equipped with the specialized equipment needed to study, diagnose, and treat health conditions relating to exposure to burn pits and other environmental exposures;
(2) have a publication track record of post-deployment health exposures among veterans who served in the Armed Forces in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom;
(3) have collaborated with a geosciences department that has a medical geology division;
(4) have developed animal models and in vitro models of dust immunology and lung injury consistent with the injuries of members of the Armed Forces who served in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom; and
(5) have expertise in allergy and immunology, pulmonary diseases, and industrial and management engineering.
(c) Collaboration.–The Secretary shall ensure that the center of excellence collaborates, to the maximum extent practicable, with the Secretary of Defense, institutions of higher education, and other appropriate public and private entities (including international entities) to carry out the responsibilities specified in subsection (d).
(d) Responsibilities.–The center of excellence shall have the following responsibilities:
(1) To provide for the development, testing, and dissemination within the Department of Veterans Affairs of best practices for the treatment of health conditions relating to exposure to burn pits and other environmental exposures.
(2) To provide guidance for the health system of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense in determining the personnel required to provide quality health care for members of the Armed Forces and veterans with health conditions relating to exposure to burn pits and other environmental exposures.
(3) To establish, implement, and oversee a comprehensive program to train health professionals of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense in the treatment of health conditions relating to exposure to burn pits and other environmental exposures.
(4) To facilitate advancements in the study of the short-term and long-term effects of exposure to burn pits and other environment exposures.
(5) To disseminate within the military medical treatment facilities of the Department of Veterans Affairs best practices for training health professionals with respect to health conditions relating to exposure to burn pits and other environmental exposures.
(6) To conduct basic science and translational research on health conditions relating to exposure to burn pits and other environmental exposures for the purposes of understanding the etiology of such conditions and developing preventive interventions and new treatments.
(7) To provide medical treatment to all veterans identified as part of the burn pits registry established under section 201 of the Dignified Burial and Other Veterans’ Benefits Improvement Act of 2012 . . . .
(f) Definitions.–In this section:
(1) The term “burn pit” means an area of land located in Afghanistan or Iraq that–
(A) is designated by the Secretary of Defense to be used for disposing solid waste by burning in the outdoor air; and
(B) does not contain a commercially manufactured incinerator or other equipment specifically designed and manufactured for the burning of solid waste.
(2) The term “other environmental exposures” means exposure to environmental hazards, including burn pits, dust or sand, hazardous materials, and waste at any site in Afghanistan or Iraq that emits smoke containing pollutants present in the environment or smoke from fires or explosions.
(g) Authorization of Appropriations.–There is authorized to be appropriated to carry out this section $30,000,000 for each of fiscal years 2016 through 2021.
How Does All of This Apply to Civilian Contractors?
While Congresswoman Esty’s “Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act” focuses on the use of medical science to help veterans exposed to burn pits, the science could also be used in Defense Base Act claims initiated by injured contractors.
The Defense Base Act provides federal workers’ compensation to contractors who were injured while working overseas on military bases. Most DBA claims arise out of employment in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many DBA claimants were employed on bases side-by-side with soldiers. Consequently, these contractors worked near the same “burn pits and other environmental exposures.” If the “[h]ealth effects from exposure to chemicals found in burn pits can include cancer, neurological and reproductive effects, respiratory toxicity, and cardiovascular toxicity” in soldiers, then the same health effects could eventually plague the civilian or military contractors working with soldiers.
Injured contractors could be entitled to benefits as a result of their exposure to burn pits. Not only does the Defense Base Act pay wage loss compensation, it also pays for the reasonable and necessary medical care associated with the work-related injury.
In my opinion, Congresswoman Esty’s legislation is a starting point. Contact your representative and let them know that you support research regarding the health effects of burn pits. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind Congress instituting a burn pit registry for contractors that is similar to the registry for soldiers. If contractors outnumber troops three to one, perhaps contractor health issues could provide additional medical data for the scientists to study.
Photo from the U.S. Department of Defense, Defense.gov News Photos.