By Seely Kaufmann

 

In his inaugural episode of “The Problem with Jon Stewart”, Jon Stewart examined the challenge of burn pit exposure for veterans.[1] These pits were a common feature at military bases across the Middle East – a crude answer to a basic logistics problem.[2] Garbage, including paint, medical and human waste, metal cans, unexploded ordnance, and batteries, was doused in jet fuel and set ablaze, spewing toxic fumes and carcinogens into the air.[3] The Department of Defense (DOD) estimates that roughly 3.5 million service members could have been exposed to burn pits.[4] Current and former military members stationed on bases with these burn pits suffer a myriad of conditions possibly due to the exposure to these chemicals; President Biden has even acknowledged that his son Beau’s deployment to Balad Air Base in Iraq may have been associated to his brain cancer diagnosis, noting “because of exposure to burn pits — in my view, I can’t prove it yet — he came back with stage 4 glioblastoma.”[5] However, the Department of Veterans Affairs has denied approximately 75 percent of veterans’ burn pit claims, because conditions like cancer have not been conclusively linked to exposure to the burn pits.[6]

In part to address this issue, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 was passed by Congress in December 2019, which included two provisions that requires the DOD to draft a plan to eliminate all existing burn pits and provide a list of burn pit sites to the VA.[7]  However, no timeline is associated with that plan.[8] The Secretary of Defense is required to record whether service members have been exposed to an open burn pit, through the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry (AHOBPR) and in routine physical examinations and health assessments.[9] This information should develop of a record that links burn pit exposure to particular health consequences, but this bill did not go far enough, especially given the aggressiveness of the cancers being documented.[10] A two pronged approach of quickly funding research to develop these causal links while simultaneously cutting through the red tape that stops veterans suffering severe medical conditions from receiving treatment should be implemented to fully address the problem.

Even with the issue exposure from a celebrity, bills in both the House and Senate implementing similar measures have continued to languish. No actions have been taken on The Veterans Burn Pits Exposure Recognition Act of 2021 in either the Senate or the House since their introduction in February and April respectively.[11]

 

[1] The Problem with Jon Stewart: War (Apple TV broadcast, Sept. 30, 2021).

[2] Kenzi Abou-Sabe & Didi Martinez, Veterans face uphill battle to receive treatment for ‘burn pit’ exposure, NBC News (Apr. 12, 2021, 5:23 PM), https://www.nbcnews.com/news/military/veterans-face-uphill-battle-receive-treatment-burn-pit-exposure-n1263862.

[3] Jim Absher, What Is The Burn Pit Registry?, Military.com (Aug. 5, 2021), https://www.military.com/benefits/veteran-benefits/what-burn-pit-registry.html.

[4] See Abou-Sabe & Didi Martinez, supra note 2.

[5] Id. (noting that Balad Air Base had one of the largest burn pits spanning more than 10 acres).

[6] Id.

[7] Steve Beynon, Burn pit legislation passed by Congress could lead to improved accountability, better care for vets exposed to hazards, Stars and Stripes (Jan. 14, 2020), https://www.stripes.com/news/burn-pit-legislation-passed-by-congress-could-lead-to-improved-accountability-better-care-for-vets-exposed-to-hazards-1.614684.

[8] Id.

[9] VA Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, https://www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/burnpits/registry.asp (last visited Oct. 29, 2021).

[10] See, e.g., Kelly Kennedy, The Enemy Is Lurking in Our Bodies”—Women Veterans Say Toxic Exposure Caused Breast Cancer, The War Horse (Oct. 14, 2021), https://thewarhorse.org/military-women-face-higher-breast-cancer-rates-from-exposure (detailing a military veteran’s diagnosis of three types of Stage 4 breast cancer at age 38 following tours in Fallujah and al-Taqqadum).

[11] See S.437 – Veterans Burn Pits Exposure Recognition Act of 2021, Actions Overview, https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/437/actions (last visited Oct. 29, 2021); H.R.2436 – Veterans Burn Pits Exposure Recognition Act of 2021, Actions Overview, https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/2436/actions (last visited Oct. 29, 2021).

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