Veterans Affairs medical staff say patients continue to report high rates of concern about potential military toxic exposure injuries, underscoring the non-combat dangers faced by troops across different generations of military service.
In November 2022, as part of outreach efforts mandated under the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act — better known as the PACT Act — VA officials began administering toxic exposure screenings as part of regular veteran health care visits. VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal said this week that the department completed nearly 5 million total screenings in the last year.
About 40% of veterans surveyed reported potential health concerns related to burn pit smoke, Agent Orange poisoning, water contamination or other military toxic exposure threats during their time in the ranks, Elnahal said. That rate has remained steady over the course of the last 12 months.
“It’s connected to all generations,” he said. “This is really a confirmation of what advocates have been saying for years, that the denominator of veterans exposed to harmful substances is quite large.”
Veterans who voice concerns about problems during the screenings are not necessarily ill or injured now. But VA staff said the goal of the questionnaire is to head off potential serious health problems with early intervention and consistent monitoring.
Elnahal said VA staff have set up new referral procedures for individuals who show signs of toxic exposure injuries and additional training for clinicians on the topics.
“No clinician should be surprised when a veteran presents with a concern about an exposure and how that might relate to their health,” he said.
Department leaders hope to eventually use the data collected from the screenings to look for trends in military toxic exposure illness rates, potentially predicting which veterans may face more serious health consequences in the future.
The information will also be used to add more illnesses to the list of conditions presumed caused by military service, opening the door for veterans to more quickly and easily obtain disability benefits.
Elnahal said officials’ next push with the screenings will be to contact more veterans who do not regularly use VA for health care, to better gauge their medical status. About 3 million veterans are enrolled in VA health care but do not regularly visit any department medical offices.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.