A National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine panel has launched a study on the respiratory effects of burn pits and other pollution encountered by U.S. troops in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
The planned 21-month review marks the second time a National Academies committee has explored the subject: in 2011, a group of physicians and scientists, under what was known then as the Institute of Medicine, concluded there was insufficient evidence to link troops' illnesses to exposure to burn pit smoke at Joint Base Balad in Iraq.
That committee found that the level of pollutants at Balad were not higher than those measured at other polluted sites in the world and concluded that other sources of pollution, such as particulate matter and metals found in dust in the region, may have contributed to troops' long-term health problems.
The new committee, which includes just one member from the 2011 group, will review all available scientific and medical research on burn pits and airborne hazards and related illnesses. It will then evaluate and summarize them and make recommendations as warranted to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which requested the study.
More than 173,000 U.S. troops and veterans have enrolled in the VA's Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry since 2014, when the database was established. The volunteer registry includes service members who worked or lived near burn pits or other pollution sources while deployed in the Middle East since August 1990 and in Afghanistan or Djibouti since Sept. 11, 2001.
Related: What Is the Burn Pit Registry?
Thousands of these troops say they have illnesses caused by the open-air pits, which were used to incinerate refuse of all types: household trash, batteries, plastic bottles, computer parts, medical waste, and chemicals, among other things.
More than 250 burn pits were used in Iraq and Afghanistan, the largest being nearly 10 acres across at Joint Base Balad. That pit was in use 24 hours a day.
While the National Academies review will focus on respiratory diseases like asthma, chronic bronchitis, sinusitis, constrictive bronchiolitis and lung cancer, veterans have many other illnesses they believe are related to burn pits that haven't been addressed in research such as brain cancer, leukemia, lymphoma and soft tissue sarcomas.
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Burn Pits 360, an advocacy group for affected veterans, has documented 130 deaths in its membership believed to be related to toxic exposure. Nearly 100 members have been diagnosed with brain cancers including glioblastoma, a relatively rare disease in persons below age 45. An additional 139 have skin cancer and an additional 116 have lymphoma.
From June 2007 to Nov. 30, 2018, the VA processed 11,581 disability compensation claims that included a burn pit component. Of those, 2,318 burn-pit related claims were approved.
According to Curt Cashour, the VA’s spokesman, the department continues to evaluate burn pit-related claims on a case-by-case basis. But that could change with Congress this year renewing its focus on burn pits and other environmental exposures encountered by troops, such as fine particles of dust in the war zones found to contain high levels of lead, chromium, iron and other metals, depleted uranium, chemicals, nerve agents and more.
Leaders of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees have said they want to hear more about these exposures and are looking at the VA's process for adding diseases to the list of conditions the department presumes are related to military service -- a designation that automatically qualifies a veteran with such a condition for health care and disability compensation.
Eleven veterans and military family organizations, including Veterans of Foreign Wars, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, the Reserve Officers Association and Wounded Warrior Project, have made burn pit and toxic exposure issues a top legislative priority this year.
The National Academies panel has not announced any public meetings for its review. It is expected to provide a final report to VA by the end of 2020.