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An effort to create a registry of service members and veterans who may have been exposed to airborne toxins while serving near open-air burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan advance in Congress this week.
Bills that would require the Veterans Affairs Department to track service members and veterans stationed near open-air disposal sites in the war zones were considered in both the House and Senate.
The House passed a veterans' education bill, HR 4057, Tuesday that included a rider calling for VA to establish an "Open Air Burn Pit Registry" for those who served near pits. If enacted, the legislation would require VA to publicize the registry and inform veterans and troops of their eligibility to be listed. It also would require VA to keep registry members apprised of research and treatment developments for illnesses and diseases associated with exposure to toxic chemicals and fumes.
The Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee passed similar legislation Wednesday as part of a veteran's mental health care bill. S. 3340, the Mental Health Access to Continued Care and Enhancement of Support Services bill, proposed by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. It includes similar requirements, directing VA to establish a registry, update members on developments and contract with an independent scientific organization to study the Defense Department's efforts to collect and track air quality in forward-deployed areas.
The original legislation was drafted in 2011 by Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., and Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, and supported by many members of both parties.
Hundreds of troops believe they have developed lung diseases or other conditions as a result of serving on bases where burn pit smoke often drifted over their work and living areas.
DoD contends there is no conclusive evidence associating long-term health consequences with the use of burn pits.
In a letter to Akin written July 23, Joanne Rooney, principal deputy under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said DoD disagreed with the findings of a U.S. Army environmental engineering officer who wrote in April 2011 that burn pits were the primary contributor to elevated levels of particulates — pollution — in the air.
"The data and conclusions from detailed scientific studies do not support this," Rooney wrote.
Lawmakers said Tuesday that a burn pit registry would help pave the way for troops to receive better care for their illnesses.
"I've heard from countless veterans consumed with and concerned about their health related to the waste from burn pits," Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-N.Y., who chairs the House Veterans' Affairs Committee's health panel, said in urging her colleagues to vote for the bill.
It passed by voice vote.
The House version of the 2013 defense authorization bill also includes requirements relevant to environmental exposures: The bill would require DoD to develop a plan for tracking environmental exposures as well as developing a system for collecting exposure data and sharing the information in future operations.