OnWatch is a quarterly newsletter of the Fleet Reserve
October 1 2018
Burn Pits and the not so Hidden Toxins
Burn pits are a common site with service members in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Some of the more common waste that is burned in these pits included chemicals, paint, medical and human waste, metal and aluminum cans, munitions and other unexploded ordinance, petroleum or other lubricant products, plastics, rubber, wood and discarded food. This maybe essential for a well maintained forward deployed base but as these burn pits rage they release chemicals into the air in which those around these pits then inhale. These burn pits have been blamed for numerous health related issues including cancers that have resulted in death.
Some of the health effects that would be noticed immediately would include any irritation of the eyes, skin, or a noticeable change in respiratory and cardiovascular systems, gastrointestinal tract and internal organs. Long term effects are not fully known yet. Certainly, the longer one was exposed and the frequencies would be significant factors in determining the likelihood that whatever health conditions the veteran or service member is experiencing are linked to burn pits. Undoubtedly, more medical research is needed and should be conducted immediately and continuously. Current legislation that would accomplish this includes H.R. 1279/S.319, Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act and H.R.5671/S.3181, Burn Pits Accountability Act. These bills provide medical assistance to those who have been exposed and a means to record and track service members who have been exposed to study any long term effects burn pits might have caused.
You may not show any signs of health issues when you leave the military but you should register with the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) in case any condition arise in the future. If you or someone you know might be suffering from unexplained health effects and exposure to burn pits could be a possible contact your health care provider or your local VA Environmental Health Coordinator to get more information. For the active duty make sure all health related conditions are well documented and any veteran or retiree can contact FRA to file a claim with the VA.
Army Gen. David Petraeus (Ret.) has weighted in on this very topic. In a recent interview he has urged Congress to support the growing number of veterans sickened by exposure to burn pits. He believes lawmakers should support burn pit legislation. He has gone on to say, “By and large, our county does an extraordinary amount for our veterans and for those who are serving in uniform, and for their families, but comparing what our VA does to any other county’s care of veterans… this is the gold standard. Certainly, a gold standard that can always improve, without question. This is an issue, though, where we have a sacred obligation, and we need to meet that obligation.”
History might be repeating itself. During the Vietnam War the U.S. military sprayed around 11 million gallons of a herbicide called Agent Orange over a period of nine years to clear away jungle. This was very successful. Sadly, there where unintended consequences and as a result thousands and thousands of service members were exposed to a toxin that has been proven to cause detrimental health effects. This process took years to prove and even longer before Congress acted. Legislation has been introduced to start gathering data in order to track any potential health issues that may arise later in life, but it has not yet become law. It is expected that any legislation addressing burn pits will face the same obstacles that Agent Orange faced. Although research has yet to definitively link burn pit exposure to health conditions, the science is developing. It takes time to do this meticulous work, particularly when it can take years for medical problems to emerge. This is just one more reason to make sure any health issues are well documented.
FRA supports H.R. 1279/S.319, Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act and H.R.5671/S.3181, Burn Pits Accountability Act. I personally had the opportunity to speak with my Congressman recently and at the time of our conversation I pointed out to him that he had not yet signed on as a cosponsor to either bill. I told him that I believed it is important that Congress learns from the past and not wait until a health crisis is prevalent like it has done with Agent Orange. After all it has been decade’s sense the end of the Vietnam War and Navy Blue Water Veterans are still fighting. He told me that he was aware of the bills and that there was an effort to put burn pit legislation into the last NDAA but unfortunately it did not make it into the final version. He did promise me that he would take another look at these bills and would reconsider becoming a cosponsor. Many of those who have been exposed to burn pits during their deployments may never experience any health related issues as a result of their exposure. However, if the history of Agent Orange has taught us anything it maybe five to twenty years after exposure before symptoms begin to arise. Burn pits are often said to be this generations Agent Orange but that does not mean it needs to follow the same path.
People are encouraged to go to FRA’s Action Center to voice their support for these Burn Pit bills.
OnWatch is a quarterly news update for active duty and Reserve personnel, written by Brian Condon. He served four years on Active Duty in the Marine Corps. Condon began his career with the Fleet Reserve Association (FRA), as Assistant Director of Veterans Programs on October 2015. He is committed to FRA's mission to maintain and improve the quality of life for Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard personnel and their families. You can reach Brian directly on any of FRA's advocacy issues at BrianC@fra.org