Toxic combustion fireplaces endanger the health of American veterans. Can a new law help? | US Army
Joe Biden visited Texas last week. But this was no ordinary campaign trip to a state that Democrats were eagerly eyeing as a target to go from red to blue.
Instead, the US president was talking about a problem with a personal resonance: fireplaces. It’s the catch-all term used to describe how American soldiers in foreign wars have been exposed to toxic chemicals from incinerated military waste that years later cause debilitating illnesses and the deaths of thousands. Veterans.
One of those victims, Biden thinks, could be his son Beau. In his recent State of the Union address, Biden spoke of burn pits — excavations filled with all the waste from a deployment and set on fire with jet fuel or diesel — saying the exposure could have led to the death of Beau, who served a year-long tour of duty in Iraq and later died of brain cancer.
“When they got home, many of the fittest, best-trained warriors in the world weren’t the same. Headaches. Numbness. Dizziness. Cancer that would put them in a flag-draped coffin I know,” Biden said.
In Texas, Biden met with veterans, including one who was stationed near a pit and later underwent six weeks of treatment and chemotherapy, and said access to health care and benefits for veterans combatants concerned should be expanded. “They shouldn’t have to ask for anything,” Biden said. “It should be, ‘I have a problem’ and we should say, How can I help?”
The Department of Defense estimates that about 3.5 million military personnel may have been exposed to combustion sources during the US wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan. A legislative battle is now underway to compel the Department of Veterans Affairs to expand its recognition of the health consequences of exposure to combustion fireplaces. Biden has said he will sign it, and it is set to be approved by the Senate after passing the House two weeks ago.
But the veterans’ experience is much like that of those American soldiers returning from Vietnam after being exposed to the toxic defoliant Agent Orange and began reporting symptoms, including various types of cancer. They face disbelief and skepticism.
It took more than two decades for Congress to pass the Agent Orange Act of 1991 and another 30 years to pass the Veterans’ Agent Orange Exposure Equity Act, which shifted the burden veterans having to prove their exposure to the presumption of exposure to the herbicide.
“Many veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq who were exposed to burning fireplaces are now beginning to develop illnesses that they believe are related to these types of exposures,” said Aleks Morosky, deputy director of the project. Wounded Warrior. “What we do know is that many Iraqi and Afghan veterans who were exposed are now getting sick and dying.”
Morosky, who has completed two tours in Iraq, says soldiers on active combat duty were primarily concerned with enemy fire and roadside bombs. “The fumes from a fireplace can be a nuisance, but it’s not the most dangerous thing, at first glance, when you’re there. It wasn’t until years later that we realized just how damaging this material could have been.
During the 1990-1991 Gulf War, returning soldiers reported symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, joint pain, indigestion, insomnia, dizziness and trouble breathing which became collectively known as war syndrome. of the Gulf. Possible causes included chemical warfare agents, particularly nerve gas or pyridostigmine bromide, administered as a preventive measure against exposure to chemical weapons.
But Gulf War Syndrome, like the symptoms of Agent Orange exposure and burn pit exposure, can produce multifaceted conditions that lack uniformity and aren’t easily linked. in medical terms to a set of symptoms.
Under the Agent Orange Act, Morosky says, “there was a scientific framework in place that triggers determinations by the VA and a list of conditions that are presumed to be related to service in a known exposure area. We believe that we need agent orange legislation for the 21st century.
But today, it remains difficult for individual veterans to prove that exposure to fireplaces caused their health problems, and in most cases the VA does not consider the exposure a related condition. in the service. The Department of Veterans Affairs has denied about 75% of veterans’ compensation claims for burning fireplaces.
Last year, the VA established a service connection presumption for asthma, sinusitis and rhinitis based on fine particulate exposure for veterans who served anytime after August 1990 in theater of operations in South-West Asia, as well as in Afghanistan, Syria and Djibouti. or Uzbekistan on or after September 19, 2001. As of this month, 30,000 had submitted applications, with 73% of the 18,105 applications processed having been accepted to date.
In a statement to the Guardian, a VA spokesperson said: “While there are differences between the herbicidal agents, such as Agent Orange, used during the Vietnam War, and the aerial hazards in the area of Gulf War, VA takes any claims for disability due to military environmental exposure seriously. He continued, “The VA will continue to study the long-term health effects of airborne hazards in the Gulf War region.”
Support for veterans came from Biden, who announced the VA would take new steps to treat veterans diagnosed with nine cancers linked to chemical exposure, and TV political satirist Jon Stewart, who appeared on Capitol Hill last week to promote the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2021.
Stewart warned lawmakers not to block the bill. “Fuck that,” he said.
Last year he told NBC: ‘I would challenge any member of Congress who says, ‘Well, we’ll wait until the science is settled’, to dig a 100-meter pit in the middle of a city. where your constituents live, and burn everything in this town with kerosene. And then come and say to me, ‘Yeah, they’re okay with that, because there’s a lot of confusion about whether the science is settled or not on the fact that it is harmful to health.”
Biden’s son Beau was a major in a Delaware Army National Guard unit that deployed to Iraq in 2008. He later served as Delaware’s attorney general before being diagnosed with brain cancer in 2013. He died two years later at age 46.
“We don’t know for sure if a hotbed was the cause of his brain cancer or the illnesses of so many of our soldiers,” Biden said in Texas. “But I’m determined to find out whatever we can.”
In a response, the VA said, “Any veteran who believes they have a service-related disability would be encouraged to file a claim.”
Andrew Myatt, a 54-year-old Army veteran who served several tours in the Middle East, fell ill after serving in Iraq. During a routine physical examination three years ago, he was referred to an oncologist who diagnosed an aggressive form of adult leukaemia. After three years of chemotherapy treatments, the cancer is in remission.
But the VA denied Myatt eligibility. “I served with honor, so it was frustrating to be told, indeed, that you are old and broken and that we don’t need you,” he said. “You have to prove that you were exposed and that exposure caused what you have.”
Myatt points out that burn pit exposure is not necessarily a warzone problem. The military also uses burn pits to dispose of equipment from overseas training exercises. According to a 2019 Department of Defense report, there were nine active military hotbeds in the Middle East in 2018.
A 2015 report by a Pentagon inspector general said it was “indefensible” that military personnel were “even more exposed to potentially harmful emissions” from the use of fireplaces.
Myatt explains that all military engagements come with lessons about what could have been done better. For his generation, it is the hearths of combustion or other diseases linked to toxic exposure.
“We would like the legislation to pass,” he said. “There are a lot of things military people get – leukemia, skin cancer, lung cancer, brain tumors – that weren’t considered cause and effect from our exposure while serving. our wartime government.”