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Burn-pit registry for veterans signed into law

Jan. 10, 2013 - 06:25PM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 10, 2013 - 06:25PM  |  
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President Obama signed legislation Thursday requiring the Veterans Affairs Department to establish a registry for troops and veterans who lived and worked near open-air burn pits used to dispose waste in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere overseas.

In addition to including new requirements for providing a casket or urn for veterans with no known next of kin and establishing care">for a military cemetery in the Philippines, the Dignified Burial and Other Veterans Benefits Improvement Act, S. 3202, aims to pinpoint the number of veterans who may have been exposed to burn-pit smoke so VA can track their medical histories and keep them apprised of new treatments for associated conditions.

Troops deployed in support of contingency operations and stationed at a location where an open burn pit was used will be eligible to register.

Veterans advocacy groups and families of service members who have become ill since their deployments hailed passage of the law as a "victory."

"It validates the truth behind every death, every illness associated with exposure," said Rosie Lopez-Torres, co-founder of Burn Pits 360 and wife of former Army Capt. LeRoy Torres, who developed a rare lung disorder known as constrictive bronchiolitis after serving in Iraq.

VA said Thursday it will announce directions for signing up when the registry becomes available.

"The new registry will enhance VA's ability to monitor the effects of exposure and keep Veterans informed about studies and treatments," VA wrote on its">burn pits military exposures web page Thursday.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., one of the bill's sponsors, became involved in promoting the registry after a constituent, Air National Guard Master Sgt. Jessey Baca, fell ill following deployment.

"Just as our veterans have answered the call of duty for our country, we have answered their call for better information and today brings us closer to insuring this special population receives the care and treatment they deserve," Udall said in a statement released Thursday.

Some feel the legislation did not go far enough to address war-zone environmental toxins. The list of pollutants troops may have come in contact with in Iraq and Afghanistan is long, ranging from chemicals inhaled by soldiers who fought a sulfur fire near Mosul in 2003, to dust and fine air particulates inhaled during daily operations, depleted uranium and more.

"I fear everyone is going to say the health conditions seen in our troops are only a consequence of burn pits and now we can stop worrying," said Dan Sullivan, president of the Sgt. Thomas Sullivan Center, a nonprofit group named for his brother that raises awareness of post-deployment health concerns.

"But there are so many environmental exposures, it's important to focus on them and how they might affect one another," said Sullivan, whose brother died in 2009 of heart, lung and digestive tract diseases that his family thinks were related to environmental exposures, including insecticides and phosphates.

VA has acknowledged troops may suffer from illnesses related to environmental exposures. According to VA, it has established a surveillance program for service members exposed to hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen, at a water treatment facility near Basrah in 2003, and it lists nine infectious diseases found in the Middle East as service-related conditions.

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