By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON — Veterans’ groups are applauding a new law creating an Open Burn Pit Registry, which was passed by Congress over the VA’s objections.
The Dignified Burial and Other Veterans’ Benefits Improvement Act of 2012, signed into law last month by President Barack Obama, requires VA to create and maintain an open burn pit registry for veterans who may have been exposed to toxins caused by open burn pits in Iraq or Afghanistan. VA also must develop a public-information campaign about the open burn pit registry, including how to register and the benefits of registering; and periodically notify eligible individuals “of significant developments in the study and treatment of conditions associated with exposure to toxic airborne chemicals and fumes caused by open burn pits.”
Those advocating for a registry, such as Rosie Lopez-Torres, cofounder of Burn Pits 360, called the law a “huge victory.” Her organization started a burn pit registry in the absence of a federal registry. It now includes nearly 2,000 servicemembers or family members of the deceased who voluntarily reported data, she told U.S. Medicine.
“This registry has proven the need for a registry,” she said.
VA said on its military exposures website that the agency will announce how to sign up once the registry is available.
“The new registry will enhance VA’s ability to monitor the effects of exposure and keep veterans informed about studies and treatments,” the agency stated.Health Effects Controversy
Open burn pits have been used in Afghanistan and Iraq to dispose of products including chemicals, paint, medical and human waste, metal/aluminum cans, munitions and other materials.
Veterans’ advocates and some researchers have said they believe there is an association between burn pits and breathing problems in troops. DoD and VA, however, have maintained that, until now, research has not shown conclusively that long-term adverse health effects result from exposure to the burn pits.
A 2011 Institute of Medicine (IoM) report did little to quell that controversy. The report, done at the request of the VA, concluded that it could not say whether troops’ exposures to emissions from open-air burn pits cause ongoing health effects.
Among the reasons for the IoM’s inconclusive results were “insufficient data” on troops’ exposures to open-air burn pits, as well as high background levels of ambient pollution from other sources and a lack of information on the quantities and composition of wastes burned in the pits, all of which “complicate interpretation of the data,” according to the authors.
The IoM’s conclusions were offered as reasons why VA did not support the burn pit registry bill when it was under consideration, according to congressional testimony to the Senate Committee on Veteran Affairs in June.
“First, VA can identify all servicemembers that deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and has used this information in the development of an injury-and-illness surveillance system,” noted Curtis Coy, VA deputy undersecretary for economic opportunity, in written testimony. “Second, the most recent Institute of Medicine report on burn pits identified air pollution, rather than smoke from burn pits, as the most concerning potential environmental hazard. Third, all Iraq or Afghanistan veterans are eligible for cost-free health care for a period of five years after discharge or separation from active-duty military service.”
Coy told the lawmakers that VA believes the “most effective way to capture the most complete and representative information on adverse health effects, including exposure to burn pits,” is to conduct a comprehensive, prospective study of long-term adverse health effects.
“VA and DoD are already engaged in several focused studies on health effects related to this cohort, including DoD’s Millennium Cohort Study and VA’s New Generation Study,” he testified. “Both studies are providing valuable insights into respiratory disease incidence in veterans and servicemembers in the [Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation New Dawn] cohort. VA is planning a large-scale epidemiological study that will provide improved understanding about a broad range of potential adverse health effects subsequent to deployment to OEF/OIF/OND.”
Despite VA’s opposition to the bill, several veteran groups were supportive of the legislation, including the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Fleet Reserve Association and National Military Family Association and Burn Pits 360.
“Any veteran who lived near an open-air burn pit is familiar with the short-term health effects caused by burning trash. However, the lasting effects of toxic exposure from burn pits are unknown without data tracking the health and well-being of deployed servicemembers,” Tom Tarantino, deputy policy director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told the committee in written testimony.
For Torres, the passage of the law was personal. Her husband, with whom she founded the organization, was diagnosed with a lung disorder after serving in Iraq. She and other advocates had “knocked on a lot of doors” to see this registry bill passed, she said.
“After all of these visits to Washington and everything at our own expense on top of trying to take care of our loved ones, we finally have victory. It means a lot to our family and to all the families,” she said.