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New 'burn pit' registry may help Iraq vets exposed to toxic fumes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 14, 2013 - WASHINGTON – When Army Sgt. Aubrey Tapley served at Joint Base Balad in Iraq in 2004, she was exposed to the choking fumes from open-air “burn pits,” where the base used jet fuel to set ablaze huge piles of waste.

Later, when Tapley suffered from maladies that included a lung condition, severe migraines, and endometriosis, she became convinced of a link between her exposure to such toxic smoke and her health problems.

Tapley, 33, a mother of two from Elsberry, Mo., was the first Iraq veteran to join with spouses of other vets in founding a group called BurnPits360, which contends that burn pit smoke toxins are “the new Agent Orange” – a reference to the defoliant used during the Vietnam War that caused health problems.

The group joined with larger veterans organizations to push for legislation to set up a registry of troops and vets who lived or worked near burn pits in Iraq or Afghanistan, as a way of assessing possible links to health problems. Congress included a registry provision in legislation this fall, and President Barack Obama signed it into law on Jan. 10 as part of a wider veterans bill.

“This will lead to a better understanding of the type of health care veterans (who served in Iraq and Afghanistan) need,” Tapley said in an email Thursday. “Once they can determine a link between certain illnesses, hopefully we can begin fighting for presumptive illnesses.”

The Senate sponsor of the bill was U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M , and the main House sponsor was former U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood, who said in an interview this fall that “it appeared that there was a pattern – that people exposed to burn pit smoke or gases were developing some strange medical complications.”

The burn pit registry, he said, would help the Veterans Administration determine if a correlation existed between exposure to the burn pit fumes and the later development of certain health problems. “If there are symptoms that develop over a period of time and if you catch them early enough,” Akin told the Beacon, “it may result in saving somebody’s life or being able to better treat a particular condition.”

This week, the VA posted a message on its burn pits military exposures webpage saying that it will announce how vets can sign up once the registry is established. “The new registry will enhance the VA’s ability to monitor the effects of exposure and keep veterans informed about studies and treatments,” the VA said, adding that it also is conducting studies on possible health effects.

“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 Thursday.

In an email, Tapley said, “Veterans deserve to have health care that is specialized to their needs and VA clinics specific to these environmental exposures. We encourage veterans to continue to register at www.burnpits360.org while waiting for the official registry to be implemented.”

Other veterans’ groups are also concerned about other environmental toxins in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some troops may have been exposed to depleted uranium ammunition; chemicals emitted during a sulfur fire near Mosul; and drinking water near Basra that may have contained a carcinogenic compound of chromium.

The burn pits registry provision was part of a much wider bill, the Dignified Burial and Other Veterans' Benefits Improvement Act of 2012, which also included a provision based on a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Harrisonville.

That provision would ban the burial in national or veterans’ cemeteries of any criminal classified as a Tier III sex offender who was sentenced to a minimum of life imprisonment. A Tier III offender is one whose offenses against a child might include aggravated sexual abuse or sexual abuse and abusive sexual contact.

Hartzler said she proposed the bill after a constituent from Osceola, Mo., told her at a town hall meeting in 2011 that she was upset that her father, who had sexually abused her as a child, had been buried with full military honors in national cemetery.

“The previous law affording military honors to veterans convicted of sexual abuse was an injustice to the victims and an affront to all who have given their lives in service to this country,” Hartzler said in a statement.

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