WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama promised Tuesday that health concerns related to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan will not become another Agent Orange, with the military denying their dangers for decades.
In a White House roundtable Tuesday with Stars and Stripes and other military reporters, Obama said he is tracking reports from the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments about the burn pits, still in use at a number of bases in Iraq and Afghanistan to dispose of various equipment and supplies. He said officials are still working to get an "objective" view on the problem.
"I'm absolutely convinced that our commanders in theater are doing everything they can to protect their men and women," he said. "My overriding mandate is you get the best science possible, and then make decisions from that standpoint."
Agent Orange, a defoliant used by the U.S. military in Vietnam, was linked to a host of medical problems among Vietnamese citizens and American troops, but military officials denied its effects for decades.
Defense officials say the open-air burn pits do not pose a significant threat to servicemembers nearby, citing a 2008 Joint Army/Air Force study that sampled air quality near burn pits and found few new health risks.
But a 2008 study by researchers at Vanderbilt University found higher incidences of respiratory diseases among Kentucky soldiers after they returned from Iraq in 2003. And a VA study of more than 6,000 Iraq war troops found about 10 percent of suffered from nasal allergies, a rate twice that of troops stationed in the U.S.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said officials in his department may implement a burn-pit health screening, similar to the one vets undergo to check for brain injuries and stress disorders, in order to better track the potential problem.
"I know we are working with DOD to do the kinds of sampling we didn't do for Agent Orange, seeing what's there that is different from a control population," he said. "My interest is how do we change what has been the 40-year journey of Agent Orange, the 20-year journey of Gulf War Illness."
Obama would not say he is convinced the burn pits present a serious health threat to troops, but insisted that his staff and military officials are still researching the issue.
"Nobody is served by denial or sweeping things under the rug," he said.