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Veterans Affairs Department officials are opposing legislation to create a registry of service members who may have been exposed to toxic fumes of open burn pits in Iraq or Afghanistan, and they say they do not see the value of such an effort.
"VA can identify all service members that deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and has used this information in the development of an injury-and-illness surveillance system," said Curtis Coy, VA's deputy undersecretary for economic opportunity, at a Wednesday hearing at which a burn-pit bill was discussed.
Coy said there are two other reasons why the Obama administration doesn't support S 1798, a burn-pit bill pending in the Senate.
"The most recent Institute of Medicine report on burn pits identified air pollution, rather than smoke from burn pits, as the most concerning potential environmental hazard," he said.
He also noted that all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans already are eligible for up to five years of post-discharge health care, free of charge, from VA.
"Special authority for such a registry is not required," Coy said.
Instead, Coy said VA believes "the most effective way" to determine adverse health effects of burn-pit exposure or other potential health problems is to conduct a "comprehensive, prospective study of long-term adverse health effects" among the entire population of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
The burn-pit bill pending in the Senate is similar to another under review by the House Veterans' Affairs Committee sponsored by Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., that would mandate creation of a burn-pit registry.
The House version of the 2013 defense authorization bill would require DoD to develop a plan for tracking environmental exposures faced by service members but would not specifically require creating a registry for troops deployed since Sept. 11, 2001, to areas where an open burn pit was used instead of an enclosed incinerator to burn solid waste.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., the chief sponsor of Senate bill, appeared before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, accompanied by New Mexico Air National Guard Master Sgt. Jessey Baca, to push for creation of a registry.
"Burn pits, large and small, were used throughout Iraq and Afghanistan to destroy waste, with little known about what materials might have been burned and the potential ill effects," said Udall, whose bill is cosponsored by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.
Most major veterans' groups support creating a burn-pit registry.
"Any veteran who lived near an open-air burn pit is familiar with the short-term health effects," said Tom Tarantino of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "However, the lasting effects of toxic exposure from burn pits are unknown without data tracking the health and well-being of deployed service members. With more and more data leaked from DoD about the potential for long-term health problems related to toxic exposure, it is imperative that we act now."
Coy said a registry may not help get those answers.
"We do not believe that a health registry is the appropriate epidemiological tool to use in identifying possible adverse health effects associated with certain environmental exposures," Coy said. "Health registries, by their nature, can only produce very limited and possibly skewed results."
"Studies of self-selected individuals, such as those in a registry, are not representative of an entire population of potentially exposed individuals," he said. "They may, therefore, lead to false associations as to cause of perceived and actual illnesses."
He cited registries for Vietnam veterans exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange and a Gulf War registry to track the health of the first Gulf War as examples of the potential drawbacks.
"While useful for outreach purposes, neither of these registries has been useful in terms of researching the types of health concerns raised by these veterans," Coy said.