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Lawmakers and Families Meet At First “Potential Effects of Burn Pit Exposure Among Veterans” Congressional Hearing

June 15, 2018


Burn Pits were massive open-air fire pits used by the U.S. military and its contractors during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to dispose of waste generated at military installments. A variety of materials were burned in these pits, such as plastics, solvents, medical waste, chemical drums, and so on. In response to an outcry from veterans and service members, their families, and advocates, VA created its Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry.

VA’s Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, set forth by an act of Congress in 2014, was launched for veterans to report environmental exposures related to military deployments and to identify any health effects thought to be the result of said exposure. VA uses this data to analyze the long-term health effects of burn pit exposure. Veterans who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom, and/or New Dawn; Operations Desert Shield or Desert Storm; were stationed in Djibouti on or after September 11, 2001; or served in the Southwest theater of operations on or after August 2, 1990 are eligible to include their information in this registry. As of June 2018, over 141,000 veterans and service members have enrolled.

Congressional Hearing

On Thursday, June 7, 2018 representatives from major veteran organizations brought their concerns regarding veterans’ and service members’ exposure to toxic airborne chemicals during service in Southwest Asia to the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health. During the first ever hearing assessing the “Potential Effects of Burn Pit Exposure Among Veterans,” witnesses and lawmakers discussed many topics ranging from the results of previous studies, VA’s communication efforts, problems with the Burn Pit Registry, and much more. Topics discussed include:

  • Ralph Erickson, chief consultant for post-deployment Health Services at the Veterans Health Administration, stated that there is currently not enough evidence to correlate exposure to burn pits with adverse health effects on a presumptive basis despite the over 9,000 claims for disability benefits citing exposure. Dr. Erickson also stated that there is still much to learn about the effects burn pit exposure on veterans and that government studies are underway to understand these effects, although no completion date could be estimated.
  • Terry Rauch, acting deputy assistant secretary for Health Readiness Policy and Oversight at the Pentagon, submitted a written statement on behalf of the Department of Defense who otherwise did not attend for questioning—an action one congressman cited as “quite disturbing.” In his statement, Rauch drew from reports concluding that insufficient evidence exists connecting long-term health effects and burn pit exposure, however, the report also states that respiratory health effects were “plausible” due to particulate matter in the air, albeit “burn pits were likely one of many factors.”
  • A great deal of the conversation among House members and witnesses centered on the need to act on this matter quickly to avoid burn pits becoming “the new Agent Orange for post-9/11 veterans.” Lawmakers such as U.S. Representatives Neal Dunn, Beto O’Rourke, and Raul Ruiz stated that they believe efforts should be accelerated into research or the passage of legislation related to burn pit exposure and long-term health effects on veterans and service members.
  • Another issue raised was VA’s lack of communication informing veterans of the potential health hazards burn pits may present and the existence of VA’s Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pits Registry. Thus far, only 1.7% of all eligible post-9/11 veterans have signed up for the registry. Dr. Erickson acknowledged that VA’s use of newsletters and outreach to VSOs was antiquated and agreed to push for more social media outreach.
  • Discussed next was the inability of veterans’ families to update the Airborne Hazards and Open Air Burn Pit Registry with the status of a veteran’s health or passing. Enabling this feature would allow for a full analysis of long-term health effects, according to U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro. Rep. Castro has since introduced the Family Member Access to Burn Pit Registry Act, which you may read more about below.

Legislation Recently Introduced

U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has introduced bipartisan legislation entitled Family Member Access to Burn Pit Registry Act that would allow family members to participate in the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn pit Registry on behalf of a deceased veteran or service member. Currently, the Department of Veterans Affairs does not allow family members to document the experiences of their departed veteran or service member.

Additionally, U.S. Reps. Tulsi Gabbard and Brian Mast recently proposed the bipartisan Burn Pits Accountability Act (H.R. 5671). This bill would require the Secretary of Defense to document in a service member’s Periodic Health Assessment (PHAs), Separation History and Physical Examination (SHPEs), and Post-Deployment Health Assessment (PDHA) if he or she had been stationed or based at a location in which an open-air burn pit was used or if he or she had been exposed to airborne toxic chemicals. Any information provided by the servicemember in the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry must also be included in these assessments. In addition, any service member who meets the above criteria will be enrolled in the registry unless he or she chooses to opt out. Finally, a sharing of information would be mandated between DoD and VA regarding the results of these assessments.