WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs has opened a burn-pit registry to anyone who believes he or she may have been exposed to fumes from trash burned in open pits in Iraq and Afghanistan or to toxins, such as metal or bacteria, inhaled with dust.
The registry is open to those who fought in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, were stationed in Djibouti after Sept. 1, 2001, and to veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. After signing up for the registry, veterans may request a free medical exam.
“The dusty, polluted environments of Iraq and Afghanistan contain many potential airborne hazards,” states a VA announcement, adding that fine particulate matter from dust and pollution might be more harmful than the smoke from the burn pits.
“Very small, fine particles (particulates) may cause more serious health problems because they can be inhaled deep into the lungs and airways,” states VA’s website on the subject. “These extremely small particles and liquid droplets can include acids, chemicals, metals, soil or dust.”
Lawmakers have been calling for the registry for years, after demanding that the burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan be closed down. At Air Base Balad in Iraq, the military burned 240 tons of waste, including Styrofoam, unexploded ordnance, medical waste and vehicles, every day in an open pit one mile from troops’ living quarters.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who was a sponsor of bipartisan legislation calling for the legislation, said he became interested after he met Air National Guard Master Sgt. Jessey Baca, who became sick after serving at Air Base Balad near an open burn pit. He said the legislation would help VA track service members exposed to toxic chemicals and fumes, as well as to monitor diseases associated with those exposures.
“On behalf of Jessey Baca and thousands of other veterans battling serious illnesses after exposure to toxic fumes from open air burn pits, I am very pleased to see the VA’s registry up and running,” Udall said in a statement. “He and his fellow service members answered our call to serve without hesitation, and starting today, we can finally help answer their call for better information.”
Baca’s wife Maria, who has been a strong advocate for the registry, called the news “exciting” and “amazing.”
Military Times, a sister publication to USA TODAY, first documented the problems with burn pits in 2008, after Air Force Lt. Col. Darrin Curtis, former bioenvironmental flight commander for Joint Base Balad, wrote of the burn pit: “In my professional opinion, there is an acute health hazard for individuals. There is also the possibility for chronic health hazards associated with the smoke.”
Since then, hundreds of service members have come forward with breathing problems that have caused them to run so slowly they cannot pass a physical fitness test and to feel as if they cannot breathe.
Bob Miller, a pulmonologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, discovered through lung biopsies that as many as 50 of those soldiers had developed constrictive bronchiolitis, a rare disease that affects the smallest passageways of the lungs. People develop it only if they’ve had an organ transplant or have been exposed to an environmental toxin.
Anthony Szema, an assistant professor at Stony Brook School of Medicine who specializes in pulmonology and allergies as well as working for VA, soon discovered that a higher number of service members were developing asthma. Szema’s recent research shows dust particles inside the service members’ lungs.
And Navy Capt. Mark Lyles, Joel T. Boone Professor of Health and Security Studies at the U.S. Naval War College Center for Naval Warfare Studies, found that the dust, 1,000 particles of which can sit on the head of a pin, found in Iraq and Kuwait contains 37 metals that have been linked to everything from neurological disorders to cancer; 147 different kinds of bacteria; and several kinds of disease-spreading fungi.
In April, the Defense Department released its annual relative morbidity report. A USA TODAY analysis of reports dating from 2001 to 2013, as well as Defense Manpower Data, shows that the number of people reporting respiratory and chest symptoms increased from of a rate of 406 per 10,000 in 2001 to 744 per 10,000 in 2013.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, typically associated with smokers older than 40, increased from a rate of 98 per 10,000 in 2001 to 147 per 10,000 in 2013. It hit a high of 218 per 10,000 in 2009.
read more: USA Today
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