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Lawmakers want new VA-DoD burn pit research centers

Jun. 27, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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Lawmakers want the Defense Department to create “centers of excellence” to study and treat illnesses in troops and veterans related to environmental exposures such as burn pit emissions, contaminated dust and chemicals.

Reps. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y., and Diana DeGette, D-Colo., introduced the “Helping Veterans Exposed to Toxic Chemicals Act,” HR 2510, on Thursday to establish three joint Veterans Affairs-Defense Department centers to study exposure-related illnesses.

Inspired by a constituent whose daughter, an Army nurse, noticed an increase in respiratory illnesses she believed were related to exposure to the fumes of open-air burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bishop drafted the legislation to encourage VA and DoD to “develop innovative treatments of the illnesses … and prevent them from occurring in the future.”

“America’s painful experience with Agent Orange and Gulf War syndromes requires a proactive, comprehensive response to this clear health crisis among veterans,” he said.

Some troops have developed illnesses they believe are related to serving in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, including respiratory diseases, neurological disorders and cancers they attribute to in-theater environmental hazards.

A U.S. Army environmental agency in 2007 found dioxin, metals and volatile organic compounds in air samples at Joint Base Balad in Iraq within “acceptable standard levels.”

The same group, the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine, also found levels of particulate matter in the air above military exposure guidelines, mainly caused by blowing sand and dust.

Co-sponsors of the proposed bill, estimated to cost $30 million annually, include Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., whose district includes three major military installations.

“It is absolutely necessary to enact legislation that will ensure we are well-prepared to care for our returning veterans who have been exposed to open burn pits,” Jones said.

Former Marine Sgt. Thomas Sullivan died in 2009 at age 30 of widespread organ and cardiovascular degeneration that his family believes were caused by toxic environmental hazards in Iraq.

Brother Daniel Sullivan, president of the Sergeant Sullivan Center, a nonprofit that promotes awareness, research and treatment of deployment-related illnesses, called the legislation a “historic step” toward improving the medical community’s understanding and response to deployment-related diseases.

“The legislation promises a beginning to the end of the cycle of abandonment that has occurred after the previous wars, to partly heal the wounds of our national legacy of failure to respond expeditiously to the needs of those who suffered,” Sullivan said.

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