Op-ed: Soldiers encouraged to participate in research survey

Department of Veterans Affairs is researching health conditions related to exposure to burn pits and other airborne hazards.

By State Rep. Tom Murt

When I was serving in Iraq, normal protocol for our Coalition Forces was to dispose of all trash in an open burn pit. Whether the trash was paper from care packages or MREs (meals ready-to-eat), chemicals, lubricants from the motor pool or any other type of refuse, it was taken to the base burn pit to be incinerated. The utilization of burn pits was a common waste disposal practice at various military sites throughout Iraq and Afghanistan.

The burn pits were normally larger areas, big enough to back-in a 5-ton truck, and were surrounded by a man-made earthen berm, usually over 10 feet in height. Trash was thrown inside the berm daily and burnt throughout the day. The fires were always supervised by soldiers who made certain the flames were under control. Sometimes, trash would be burning all day long, as there was so much refuse that needed to be discarded each day at every outpost.

Many of our men and women who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, and were exposed to these open burn pits, have reported experiencing various health problems. Smoke and other emissions and discharges from the burn pits contained an unknown mixture of various substances. These emissions are now suspected to have adverse short- and long-term health effects on our military personnel. This is especially true for individuals who were exposed for longer periods or those with pre-existing conditions such as asthma or other lung or heart conditions.

Although the research and study are still taking place, preliminary studies strongly suggest that the prolonged exposure of our military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan to the materials that were incinerated in the open burn pits is believed to have caused health problems for our men and women in uniform.

Some of the problems that have been manifested include lung symptoms and other respiratory health conditions related to the burn pits. Studies are suggesting a connection between the burn pits and the health of our soldiers, but not enough information is available yet to determine the long-term impact. In response, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is conducting research on the issue and has created the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry for Veterans and Servicemembers.

The registry is a tool to help participants become more aware of their health and to identify health conditions related to exposure to burn pits and other airborne hazards (e.g., sand, dust and particulates). Participation is fully voluntary, and the enrollment questionnaire can be used to identify many health concerns, guide discussions with a health care provider and document deployment-related exposures.

The benefits of registering include an improved awareness of your health, and especially of your health history as it relates to your military service. The registry also allows you to discuss with a knowledgeable provider your own healthcare and what services are available in the VA system to help you personally. This will also help veterans and their family to better understand the effects of environmental exposures on health, leading to improved health care for you and for all veterans.

Veterans who are eligible for the registry are also eligible to obtain an optional no-cost, in-person medical evaluation. Participants already enrolled in VA health care should contact their primary care provider to schedule an evaluation. Veterans not already enrolled should contact an Environmental Health Coordinator at the nearest VA facility or call 877–222–8387. Veterans may also choose to go directly to the website at veteran.mobilehealth.va.gov/AHBurnPitRegistry/#page/home

Active-duty service members, including activated Reserve and Guard personnel, should contact their local military hospital or clinic to schedule an appointment for a voluntary medical evaluation. Please state that you are calling for an appointment specifically to address “health concerns related to the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry exposures.”

We ask our men and women in uniform to put their lives on the line in protecting us, our families and our nation. The very least we can do in return to is to provide them quality healthcare when they return to their families. ••

Rep. Thomas P. Murt represents the 152nd Legislative District. He is chairman of the Disabilities Caucus and the Human Services Subcommittee on Mental Health.