Army veteran fights to get burn pit exposure recognized
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President Biden signed two bills into law Monday that could help tens of thousands of veterans who claim they became ill from exposure to burn pits.
The pair of bills, included in the $768 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2022, will bring sweeping reform to the military’s use of burn pits, expand a registry of service members exposed to the crude trash incineration method while serving overseas and enhance medical training for health care providers.
“My bills, the DOD Burn Pits Health Provider Training Act and the Burn Pit Registry Expansion Act, becoming law is a great step forward in our fight to get our veterans affected by toxic burn pit exposure the care they deserve,” Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., a doctor who authored the two bills, told Fox News.
“These much-needed bills will help address the urgent public health crisis facing our veterans by expanding the Burn Pit Registry to a whole new group of veterans and helping physicians quickly identify at-risk service members.
“As these new laws take effect, I will continue fighting for our nation’s burn pit-exposed veterans and service members to get them the timely care they need and end the use of burn pits once and for all.”
U.S. Army soldiers watch garbage burn in a burn pit at Forward Operating Base Azzizulah in Maiwand District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, in February 2013. (REUTERS/Andrew Burton)
The two bills signed into law include the Department of Defense (DoD) Burn Pits Health Provider Training Act (H.R. 4397), which will require the DoD to implement mandatory training for all medical providers working for the department on the potential health effects of burn pits. The Burn Pit Registry Expansion Act (H. R. 4400) will require the DoD and the Veterans Administration to expand their registry to include military members who were stationed in Egypt and Syria.
Both bills are expected to take effect immediately with the provider training act helping to train doctors to catch early signs of toxic exposure in an effort to provide more timely care. Many veterans who were exposed to burn pits say that their doctors often struggled to pinpoint how young, otherwise healthy, service members with no family history of cancer were becoming ill.
“A decade ago, we went to VA health care facilities, and they just kind of shrugged their shoulders,” Rosie López-Torres, founder of advocacy group Burn Pits 360, told Fox News. The two bills resulted in part from her organization’s lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill the last decade.
López-Torres adds that more needs to be done to ensure that all service members are receiving the help they need.
“We are proud to see these bills become laws,” she said, “But they need to expand the list of locations. We have a lot of service members saying that they are still working near active burn pits and questioning why they can’t be on the registry.”
Biden has said publicly that he believes his son Beau’s terminal cancer resulted from exposure to burn pits while serving with the U.S. Army in Iraq. This past Veterans Day, the Biden administration released a statement announcing actions to develop and test a model for establishing a connection to illnesses developed after exposure to toxins released into the air as plumes of smoke rose from the burn pits. The initiative aims to provide veterans who were exposed to burn pits with long-denied benefits.
“We’re going to work with Congress — Republicans and Democrats together — to make sure our veterans receive the world-class benefits that they’ve earned, and meet the sacred — the specific care — specific needs that they each individually need,” President Biden said during public remarks at Arlington Cemetery on Veterans Day. “That means expanding presumptive conditions for toxic exposure and particulate matter, including Agent Orange and burn pits.
“We’re going to keep pushing on this front to be more nimble and responsive,” he added. “We’re reviewing all the data and evidence to determine additional presumptive conditions that make sure our veterans don’t have to wait to get the care they need.”
López-Torres says she would like to see Biden do more to include the full 23 presumptive conditions associated with burn pit exposure.
“They are spoon-feeding us a little at a time, and that’s not OK,” she said. “We don’t have time to wait. People are dying.”
The Investigative Unit at Fox News has reported extensively on the fears that veterans have become sick from exposure to fumes from burn pits. Many soldiers said the pits were a crude method of incineration in which every piece of waste was burned, including plastics, batteries, appliances, medicine, dead animals and even human waste.
Everything from food packaging to medical waste was dumped into many of the burn pits used as trash heaps in Iraq and Afghanistan.
(Courtesy of Dan Brewer)
The items were often set ablaze with jet fuel as the accelerant. The pits burned more than 1,000 different chemical compounds day and night. Most service members breathed in toxic fumes with no protection. According to a registry created by the VA, over 200,000 vets said the exposure made them ill, but the department denied assistance to many of them.
Many veterans and their families have said that their experience trying get help with health care coverage left them feeling that the federal government viewed them with doubt and suspicion.
The new laws are the latest advances in a push for burn pit exposure to become a presumptive condition by the VA when addressing disabilities.
The Presumptive Benefits bill was originally introduced in September of last year but was reintroduced in March with updated criteria for presumptive care.
To simplify eligibility, the bill favors veterans having relevant service medals received after their tour of duty instead of documentation that they served a minimum number of days, a crucial step, proponents of the bill say. Listing their service as a presumptive condition will help to provide needed care to millions of veterans.
“These are men and women who have sacrificed everything for our country, and now they’re sacrificing their lives because of diseases that are caused by their exposure that they had no say about being stationed next to a burn pit,” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a co-sponsor of the bill, told Fox News in April. “We know burn pits are deadly. That’s why they’re banned in the United States.”
“The epidemiology already exists for most of these diseases because we know the nature of what’s burned in the burn pit is identical to the stuff that was burned on 9/11 and the weeks and months on the pile thereafter. And there’s a ton of work done to show causation with all the research done over the last 15 years.”
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