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House lawmakers will have a chance to vote on the creation of a registry for tracking the health of troops exposed to the polluted air from "burn pits" in which waste was destroyed at bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The legislation, initially proposed last year, was voted out of a subcommittee Friday with a recommendation for approval when the full House Veterans Affairs Committee begins its own budget mark-up on July 11. It would then move on the House floor.
"We owe the men and women who fought so valiantly in the service to our country many things, not the least of which is to take a serious and proactive approach to the issues they experience when they return to our shores," said Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-NY, chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Health for the HVAC.
In 2010 the Government Accountability Office reported that the military did not always follow federal guidelines intended to protect the health of servicemembers in and around the burn pits.
"U.S. Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq do not sample or monitor burn pit emissions as provided by a key [Central Command] regulation," GAO wrote, "and the health impacts of burn pit exposure on individuals are not well understood, partly because the military does not collect required data on emissions or exposures from burn pits."
Though the Army sampled the air around the pits and found pollutants that cause health problems, it determined the particles were not unique to the pits, GAO said.
A leaked April 8, 2011, Army memo, meanwhile, based on an 8-year assessment of air quality at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan, said exposure to the toxic air could pose long-term respiratory problems.
The memo, which was acquired and published in May by the website Danger Room, said the "long term health risk associated with air conditions on BAF ... indicates there is a potential that long-term exposure at these levels may increase the risk for developing chronic health conditions such as reduced lung function or exacerbated chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, atherosclerosis, or other cardiopulmonary diseases."
A report last October in USA Today, based on analysis of Defense Department morbidity reports, showed cardiovascular problems among active-duty servicemembers rose from 65,520 in 2001 to 91,013 in 2010, while neurologic conditions went from 9,688 to 32,667 over the same period.
The paper reported that the increases have doctors, researchers and environmental experts pointing the finger at the open burn pits in Iraq, where at Balad Air Base some 240 tons of Styrofoam, plastic water bottles, diesel engines and computer parts and more were burned each day from the time the base was established to 2009.
At Friday’s hearing, Buerkle cited a 2011 National Institutes of Medicine report done for the VA that found a lack of data made it unable to determine the long-term health effects of exposure to the toxic burn pits.
The proposed registry is intended to provide the data, she said.
Under the proposed legislation the Department of Veterans Affairs would launch a public awareness campaign to let eligible veterans know about the registry and provide them with information related to conditions and treatments.
The bill also requires that VA contract with an independent scientific research organization to assess the effectiveness of VA actions for collecting and maintaining information on the health effects of exposure to the open burn pits, recommend improvements to collecting the data and the best way to address the medical needs of exposed veterans.
Correction: This article initially reported that the bill was going to the House floor for a vote; it will first go to the full House Veterans Affairs Committee.