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Veterans back bill to create registry of illnesses blamed on burn pits

WASHINGTON — Veterans exposed to burn pits during their war deployments are backing legislation to create an ongoing registry of patients and illnesses believed connected to the toxic smoke, suggesting it may be the last chance to discover what long-term health problems they’ll face.

On Thursday, Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., and Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., will introduce companion bills requiring the Department of Veterans Affairs to create a burn pit registry, similar to past efforts tracking illnesses related to Agent Orange and Gulf War Illness.

The measures will not mandate new benefits or treatment for those veterans, but will establish a database of common symptoms for physicians to use in future research.

On Monday, the Institute of Medicine released a new report saying that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans’ respiratory problems may have more to do with poor air quality in those countries than the burn pits used by U.S. forces to dispose of trash, human waste and excess equipment.

However, report authors also admitted that their work leaves many questions unanswered, because of the limited data available on the burn pits. Only a few major air quality studies were conducted on the pits during the height of their use, and defense officials could not provide specific details of exactly what items were incinerated in the fires.

The Institute of Medicine report recommended a burn pit registry as a logical follow up.

Aubrey Tapley, national legislative director of Burn Pits 360, an advocacy group working on behalf of Iraq and Afghanistan troops with illnesses believed to be related to the toxic fumes, said because of that lack of data, researchers will likely never know exactly what chemicals troops were breathing all those years.

“So the registry is our best alternative to help find answers on this,” she said.

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Tapley, who served as an Army human resources manager at Balad Air Base in 2004, said she spent four months working around the burn pit there before any health effects surfaced. She was evacuated from Iraq with severe pelvic pain, and in the following years needed a hysterectomy and gall bladder removal surgery to deal with tumors riddling her body.

She had no serious medical problems before her deployment, but had to quit her job as a first grade teacher earlier this year because of severe migraines and frequent, unexplained blackouts. VA doctors have blamed the problems on post-traumatic stress disorder and possible hereditary problems, but Tapley believes it’s more likely dioxin poisoning from the burn pit smoke.

“We already have a list of more than 200 veterans suffering from these kind of illnesses,” she said. “We’ve seen people having unexplained seizures, then unexplained tumors, and then dying. We know these burn pits caused health problems.”

Officials from the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vietnam Veterans of America and the National Military Family Association have backed the registry proposal.

Defense officials said nearly all burn pits were phased out in Iraq by the start of 2010, but nearly 200 were still in use at U.S. military bases in Afghanistan at the start of this year, including several large pits at major installations.

In recent years, Defense Department medical officials have maintained that smoke from the burn pits is not connected to a rash of rare respiratory illnesses and cancers seen among returning veterans, but have continued to investigate the link.

Department of Veterans Affairs officials have suggested a possible link between the two in their research, and put in systems to monitor some of the more serve illnesses.

In 2009, President Barack Obama pledged that burn pit illnesses would not become “another Agent Orange” for veterans. 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.

Tapley and other members of Burn Pits 360 have questioned not just the health effects of the smoke on the deployed troops, but also on children born after their return.

Physicians studying the effects of burn pits also recently announced plans for a national scientific symposium on lung health after deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan, scheduled for February.

shanel@stripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @LeoShane

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