Report: Better study needed to determine connection between illness and burn pits
By E.B. BOYD | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 12, 2017
A new federal report says the data from an existing registry of troops’ downrange exposure to burn pits cannot be used to establish a link with health problems they are now experiencing, making it difficult to prove they are entitled to special benefits.
Currently, veterans who have been exposed to burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq have to go through difficult and time-consuming processes to prove that their conditions are service-related. At stake are health care benefits, support for spouses and education benefits for children.
Congress in 2013 mandated the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, which was launched in 2014. It allows veterans to enter information about how much they were exposed to burn pits during their deployments and any subsequent health problems.
It was intended to assist veterans in tracking their health issues and to help the Department of Veterans Affairs get information out to affected troops. Congress also hoped scientists would be able to use the registry data to gain insights into how exposure to burn pits might have resulted in cancers and respiratory, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal problems.
Robust scientific conclusions could prompt the VA to institute policies that streamline the process for benefits.
But four years later, a congressionally mandated report, produced by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, says the way data are collected in registries isn’t scientific, making it “fundamentally unsuitable” for drawing authoritative conclusions.
“A more rigorous and appropriate study design is needed,” said the report, which found that registries relying on voluntary participation and self-reported information are subject to data biases.
The absence of scientifically proven associations makes it difficult for veterans to claim benefits related to illnesses they believe stem from the burn pits, especially if those problems appear long after a deployment. “The veteran will not see those things if he can’t link his disease process to those exposures,” said Kerry Baker, a former VA legislative and policy director who now serves as a veteran advocate at Chisholm, Chisholm, and Kilpatrick, a Rhode Island law firm focused on veteran benefits.
The burn pits were used at bases in Afghanistan and Iraq to dispose of everything from general trash to paints and chemicals, automotive parts, rubber, plastics and human waste. Accelerants like jet fuel and kerosene were often used to start the fires, which sent thick black clouds across installations. According to the report, at least 250 such pits were set up in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Veterans began complaining of health problems in the mid-2000s. In 2009, the military restricted the use of burn pits.
As veterans fell ill or died, advocacy groups started demanding action. In 2011, Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., and Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., introduced bills that would become the registry law, which allows anyone who deployed after 9/11 to participate. The VA says more than 105,000 people have enrolled.
Both the new report and the 2011 Institute of Medicine assessment recommended the government should conduct a public-health-style epidemiological study to identify the effects of burn pits.
“There would be a methodological approach to selecting who’s going to be participating in the study and a more rigorous approach for assessing exposure to the burn pits and health outcomes than the registry is capable of providing,” said Dr. David Savitz, a professor of epidemiology and vice president of research at Brown University, who chaired the National Academies report.
Senior Airman Frances Gavalis tosses used uniforms into a burn pit at Balad Air Base, Iraq, March 10, 2008. Congress hoped the VA's burn pit registry would enable scientists to gain insights into the connection between burn pits and veterans' illnesses, but a new report said the data aren't scientific enough to draw good conclusions.
JULIANNE SHOWALTER/U.S. AIR FORCE