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Susan Zeier holds a sign showing the different elements that were burned in pits. Her son-in law was diagnosed with cancer and it's believed to have been contracted due to exposure to burn pits when he was a soldier in Iraq. Zier was at a news conference in front of U.S. Capitol in Washington on June 7, 2018.
Susan Zeier holds a sign showing the different elements that were burned in pits. Her son-in law was diagnosed with cancer and it's believed to have been contracted due to exposure to burn pits when he was a soldier in Iraq. Zier was at a news conference in front of U.S. Capitol in Washington on June 7, 2018. (Michael S. Darnell/Stars and Stripes)
Susan Zeier holds a sign showing the different elements that were burned in pits. Her son-in law was diagnosed with cancer and it's believed to have been contracted due to exposure to burn pits when he was a soldier in Iraq. Zier was at a news conference in front of U.S. Capitol in Washington on June 7, 2018.
Susan Zeier holds a sign showing the different elements that were burned in pits. Her son-in law was diagnosed with cancer and it's believed to have been contracted due to exposure to burn pits when he was a soldier in Iraq. Zier was at a news conference in front of U.S. Capitol in Washington on June 7, 2018. (Michael S. Darnell/Stars and Stripes)
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, speaks in front of the U.S. Capitol at a news conference about the need for Congress to support legislation creating better medical benefits for veterans suffering from illnesses contracted due to exposure to burn pits.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, speaks in front of the U.S. Capitol at a news conference about the need for Congress to support legislation creating better medical benefits for veterans suffering from illnesses contracted due to exposure to burn pits. (Michael S. Darnell/Stars and Stripes)
Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., speaks in front of the U.S. Capitol at a news conference about the need for Congress to support legislation creating better medical benefits for veterans suffering from illnesses contracted due to exposure to burn pits.
Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., speaks in front of the U.S. Capitol at a news conference about the need for Congress to support legislation creating better medical benefits for veterans suffering from illnesses contracted due to exposure to burn pits. (Michael S. Darnell/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON – A group of lawmakers and military families said Thursday they are pushing forward with legislation and the first House hearing to address servicemembers’ exposure to burn pits in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Three House Democrats, flanked by Gold Star families and veterans, announced the plans on Capitol Hill to address what they say is an ongoing, potentially deadly concern. The first House committee hearing on the matter was slated to be held Thursday.

In several lawsuits, veterans claim that KBR, a former subsidiary of major defense contractor Halliburton, used the pits to burn dumped waste, such as paint, chemicals, plastics, tires and medical waste, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Exposed servicemembers have reported cases of gastrointestinal and respiratory illnesses and rare forms of cancer.

“I am outraged by the inaction by the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs department to provide answers to servicemembers and veterans exposed to the toxic burn pits,” said Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif. “For more than a decade, veterans exposed to burn pits and their families have been given the runaround ... and have not had their concerns taken seriously.”

Several relatives of servicemembers who have died or veterans who survived illnesses detailed their claims tied to the burn pits Thursday. One woman said her brother, who developed a mysterious lung illness after several deployments, died in her arms. A veteran said he would not have lived without a recent lung transplant following his respiratory illness. A mother said her son was diagnosed with a rare cancer tied to toxic exposure and needs a new round of chemotherapy.

“These burn pits are the Agent Orange of the post-9/11 generation of veterans,” said Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii.

Gabbard recently joined a growing House effort to pass a Burn Pits Accountability Act to study exposure.

Last month, veterans and their families asked a federal appeals court to reinstate lawsuits brought against KBR in a string of burn-pit cases. A judge had dismissed the cases.

Defense officials have estimated there have been 63 burn pits in Iraq and 197 in Afghanistan, said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas.

“The toxic smoke from these pits may have short-term and long-term effects,” he said. “It’s devastating to hear about veterans who sacrifice so much for our nation and now experience multiple health issues.”

grisales.claudia@stripes.com Twitter: @cgrisales

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