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Senators question delay in burn pit safety measures

WASHINGTON — In February, defense officials said they would find new ways to “promote greater access and use of protective equipment” around burn pits overseas, to keep troops from breathing in toxic fumes. Now, two senators want to know whether anything has been done.

Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., have asked for an immediate update from Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, noting that defense officials had promised results within 60 days. In a letter to the defense leaders, the lawmakers point to a new study suggesting that troops who served in Iraq or Afghanistan are eight times more likely to develop respiratory illness than veterans who deployed elsewhere.

“We understand that there may be other contributing factors to this high rate of illness, such as the hazardous dust which is found in that part of the world,” the letter states. “Nevertheless, that fact only intensifies the need to limit troops’ exposure to the potential hazards of burn pits.”

Defense officials said that all open air burn pits in Iraq were closed by the end of 2010, but some are still in operation in Afghanistan. Veterans have claimed that fumes created by burned garbage -- including human waste, plastic, batteries and scrap metals -- has caused a host of respiratory illnesses, including some rare cancers.

Defense Department medical officials insist smoke from the burn pits is not connected to the rare illnesses, but have continued to investigate the link. Department of Veterans Affairs officials have suggested a possible link between the two in their research.

Pentagon officials did not have an immediate response for the request.

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