Congress orders Pentagon to track where troops were exposed to toxic burn pits

Abbie Bennett
December 18, 2019 - 10:16 am

Department of Veterans Affairs

This story originally published Dec. 12, 2019. It was updated Dec. 18, 2019 at 10:16 a.m.

The Pentagon is required to stop using burn pits and begin tracking their toxic influence now that Congress has passed its annual defense spending bill.

The National Defense Authorization Act passed the House last week and passed the Senate Tuesday. It now moves to the president's desk to become law. 

That bill is nearly 2,000 pages long and is packed with directives for the Defense Department. A few of the provisions address burn pits and airborne toxic exposure directly.

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates as many as 3.5 million service members and veterans may have been exposed to airborne toxins since 9/11. 

Ending burn pits

The defense spending bill requires the Pentagon to create and submit to Congress a plan to phase out use of burn pits. During the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom, as many as 63 burn pits blazed across the country, according to the Defense Department. At the peak of their use in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon and military contractors operated 250 burn pits of varying sizes. 

While the Defense Department has pulled back on use of burn pits, at least nine continue burning to this day in Syria, Afghanistan and Egypt -- creating more pollution than the incinerators, producing carbon monoxide and dioxin, the same chemicals responsible for health concerns associated with Agent Orange, a powerful herbicide often associated with its use during the Vietnam War.  

Tracking toxic exposure

The Secretary of Defense will also be required to submit a report to Congress and VA that includes a list of all locations where open-air burn pits have been used.

That measure was originally included in the Occupational and Environmental Transparency (OATH) Act earlier this year, then folded into the massive defense spending bill. 

Congress wants the information used to augment research, help VA deliver health care and determine disability compensation. 

But when Washington, D.C. national security thinktank, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and Wounded Warrior Project partnered to create "heat maps" to show areas that could have put troops at risk of exposure, it turned out the Pentagon data was woefully incomplete and unreliable. The Defense Department's publicly released data indicates military leaders simply may not know where all the burn pits were located. 

When the defense bill passed out of Congress Tuesday, advocates for better tracking celebrated. 

“This victory is for thousands of post-9/11 veterans who have been waiting for years for their government to do right by them,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “Passage of the OATH Act ensures that our men and women in uniform are never faced with uncertainty when it comes to documenting their toxic exposures and receiving proper treatment. I urge the president to sign this bill quickly into law, following through on our commitment to those who have served and sacrificed at a great cost.”

"I am thrilled at the passage of the OATH Act," said IAVA CEO Jeremy Butler. "IAVA strongly supported this bill, which will require DoD and VA to retroactively update medical records with toxic exposures. This is an important complement to the IAVA-led Burn Pits Accountability Act."  

“It is critical that veterans who have been exposed to environmental and occupational hazards like burn pits have accurately documented service and medical records in order to get their full earned health care and benefits,” said DAV National Legislative Director Joy Ilem. “The OATH Act would require the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs to include all available information on such exposures in a servicemember’s electronic health record, impacting not only their medical treatment but also potential VA disability claims in the future. Signing the OATH Act in law is an important step in bringing justice to those men and women exposed to airborne toxins from burn pits and other hazards.”

Health care and records

Later in the defense bill, Congress requires the Defense Department to include exposure to open burn pits and toxic airborne chemicals or contaminants as part of service members' periodic health assessments and other physical exams. 

Those exams should include an evaluation of whether a service member has been: 

  • Based or stationed at a location where an open-air burn pit was used;
  • Exposed to toxic airborne chemicals or other airborne contaminants, including any information recorded in the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry. 

Servicemembers' and veterans' health records also must reflect their potential exposure, and match any available information in existing burn pit registries, the bill says. The Pentagon must further ensure that all of its medical providers receive mandatory training on potential health effects of burn pits and airborne toxins. 

Any burn pits research conducted by the Defense Department also must be submitted to Congress and the VA and 

VA recently announced plans to study military toxic exposures and the connections to veteran illnesses

A new bill introduced in the Senate this month would establish that some veterans were exposed to airborne toxins from burn pits during their service and could create a path to care at the VA. 

Need help with toxic exposure? Click here for a list of resources and information on VA and Defense Department registries.

Read the Connecting Vets Toxic Inferno series:

Reach Abbie Bennett: or @AbbieRBennett.

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