Legislators introduce Iraq, Afghanistan burn-pit registry for vets

Thursday, November 3, 2011 | 7:16 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — In lieu of traditional landfills, U.S. military personnel have burned tons of trash and human waste while deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some veterans believe their subsequent health problems stem from the toxic fumes and smoke they inhaled from those burn pits.

Legislation filed Thursday by U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., would direct the Department of Veterans Affairs to create a registry for veterans who may have been exposed to burn pits during the wars of the past decade. The database would allow the government to collect information on the number of veterans exposed to the burn pits and the types of health problems, but it doesn't direct the government to provide any particular type of benefits to those veterans.

Similar legislation is being sponsored by U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.

Akin, who is running for U.S. Senate, said the legislation is intended to help answer a burning question for many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffering from respiratory problems and other health issues.

"Is there a really consistent pattern of a problem, of is it more just a coincidence?" Akin said. "We've seen anecdotally what appears to be some pretty weird symptoms to just turn up from nowhere."

The VA website says toxins could potentially affect the skin, eyes, respiration, kidneys, liver and the nervous, cardiovascular and reproductive systems. But it says research has so far not shown long-term adverse health effects from exposure to the burn pits.

The VA previously had asked the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies to review existing literature on the potential health effects of exposure to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. A report released earlier this week by the institute focused on a burn pit used to dispose of waste at Joint Base Balad in Iraq, which burned up to 200 tons of waste per day in 2007. The report found that the levels of most pollutants at the base were not higher than levels measured at other polluted sites worldwide, but it said there was insufficient evidence to draw firm conclusions about any long-term health effects that might be seen in service members exposed to burn pits.

The legislation would require the VA to commission an independent, scientific study to recommend the most effective means of addressing the medical needs that are likely to result from exposure to open burn pits.

To create and maintain the database could cost about $2 million over five years, Akin said.

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