Feb 11 2021

Jacksonville Daily News

During the Vietnam War, droves of U.S. service members were exposed to Agent Orange, a cancer-causing, vegetation clearing herbicide the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has since linked to 14 illnesses.
America’s younger veterans are now facing a similar crisis.
Burn pits, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) says, are “this generation’s Agent Orange.”
For hundreds of thousands of veterans who served in the Persian Gulf region since 1990, tons of war zone waste was disposed of in burn pits, at times causing billows of toxic black smoke to permeate surrounding areas. 
The VA says items burned in open air pits included chemicals, paint, medical and human waste, metal, munitions, unexploded ordnances, petroleum, plastics, rubber and food waste. 
Yet, the VA has not linked burn pits directly to adverse health effects.
A 2020 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found “insufficient evidence” on the potential correlation between exposure to burn pits or other airborne hazards in the Persian Gulf region and “adverse respiratory” illness based on “limitations in existing health studies.” 
This Congress, Tillis plans to reintroduce the Toxic Exposure in the American Military (TEAM) Act, a bill Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) calls “the most ambitious and comprehensive legislation on military toxic exposures ever introduced” and “the culmination of nearly two years of collaboration by the TEAM Coalition” of over 30 veteran service organizations.
The act would establish a scientific commission for research and would obligate the VA to enter agreements with the National Academies for study. If passed, it would also create an online exposure portal for veterans and develop a primary care questionnaire on toxic exposure, among other initiatives.
Tillis says he feels “confident” the TEAM Act will reach the president’s desk as early as this year. He is similarly confident in the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, which he also introduced to the Senate last year, an act that would give victims of water contamination at Camp Lejeune from Aug. 1, 1953 to Dec. 31, 1987 an avenue to seek judicial relief.
“I think that both the TEAM Act and the Camp Lejeune Justice Act get passed this Congress, and hopefully this year,” Tillis said. “We did the legwork in the last congress [so] I’m confident that we will get both done.” 
Smoke billows in from all sides as a U.S. soldier bulldozes deep into the flames of a burn pit to keep burnable items constantly ablaze in Balad, Iraq, September 2004.
Government relations attorney Hugh Overholt, a retired Army major general and former Judge Advocate General of the Army, said the Camp Lejeune Justice Act is “of immediate importance” to Camp Lejeune veterans, whose legal options were suppressed due to a 2014 Supreme Court decision that reinforced a law prohibiting legal action over 10 years after exposure.
“The reason that [victims] have not gotten the relief is they cannot file a claim, or they have been prohibited from filing a claim because of something called the North Carolina statute of repose,” Overholt said. “That legislation sets that statute aside basically and lets the Marines and Marine families file a claim and get into the regular order of getting a remedy.”
Currently, the VA recognizes 15 illnesses to have possible links to the toxic water, for which veterans and family members may receive benefits, and eight presumptive illnesses for which veterans may receive disability. 
Like Camp Lejeune water victims, veterans affected by burn pits believe a slew of rare, life-threatening illnesses could be connected, but more science is needed. 
In 2014, the VA established the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry for data and research. It’s open to veterans who deployed to the Southwest Asia theater after Aug. 2, 1990 or Afghanistan or Djibouti after Sept. 11, 2001. The theater includes countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and United Arab Emirates plus regional waterways.
As of last November, more than 215,000 service members and veterans are registered, according to the Military Health System.
The National Academies study looked at 27 respiratory health issues, such as cancers and chronic bronchitis, but due to lack of evidence, no connection to service in Southwest Asia was found. The study did find “limited or suggestive evidence” of a link to certain respiratory symptoms, such as chronic persistent cough and wheezing.
Over 3.7 million U.S. service members have served in the Southwest Asia theater since 1990, according to the study’s news release, which “exposed service members to airborne hazards including oil-well fire smoke, emissions from open burn pits, dust suspended in the air, exhaust from military vehicles and local industrial emissions.”
According to the TEAM Coalition’s website, more than 425,000 veterans have been affected by the so-called “Gulf War Syndrome”, which the VA recognizes with several presumptive illnesses they say are “medically unexplained” and “undiagnosed” illnesses connected to the Southwest Asia theater.
Veterans disability law firm Hill & Ponton defines Gulf War Syndrome as “a collection of potentially debilitating symptoms that Gulf War veterans may experience” as a result of exposure to infectious disease, biological weapons, chemical weapons and other chemical agents.
A U.S. soldier maneuvers a bulldozer at a burn pit in Balad, Iraq in 2004.
In a survey of its members, IAVA found 86 percent of the respondents reported exposure to burn pits or other toxins, and 89 percent of those exposed reported symptoms potentially correlated.
To better track toxins in the military, Tillis says all possible exposures need to be filed in service members’ medical health records, not just when they’re showing illness. If such a plan was implemented for veterans, Tillis says “it will be much easier to provide them the presumptions they would need for care” and would make the military and government “more mindful” of how they are disposing of hazardous materials in combat zones.
According to a 2019 Department of Defense report to Congress on open burn pits, at the time there were seven burn pits operating in Syria, one in Afghanistan and one in Egypt. In 2010, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported 251 active burn pits in Afghanistan and 22 in Iraq.
IAVA claims some pits are still in use today.