Bill would create registry for veterans exposed to burn pits overseas

Monday, November 7, 2011

If legislation filed last week by a U.S. House representative from Missouri passes, the Department of Veterans Affairs could create a registry of veterans who may have been exposed to burn pits during wars of the past decade.

A name likely on that list will be that of Lucky Sands, a Cape Girardeau soldier who died at the age of 45 in 2009.

Legislation filed last week by U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., would direct the VA to create the registry. The database would allow the government to collect information on the number of veterans exposed to the burn pits and their types of health problems, but it doesn't direct the government to provide any particular type of benefits to those veterans.

U.S. military personnel have burned tons of trash and human waste while deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some veterans believe their subsequent health problems stem from the toxic fumes and smoke they inhaled from those burn pits.

Lucky Sands' mother, Cynthia Herath, said she would support the legislation, especially if it meant soldiers who were exposed to burn pits could receive medical treatment that could really help them.

"I don't want anyone to ever have to know what I know about losing a daughter," she said. "I cry for her every single day."

Similar legislation is being sponsored by U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. Akin said the legislation is intended to help answer a question for many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffering from respiratory problems and other health issues.

"Is there a really consistent pattern of a problem, or is it more just a coincidence?" Akin said. "We've seen anecdotally what appears to be some pretty weird symptoms to just turn up from nowhere."

Earlier this year, the Southeast Missourian chronicled Sands' story in a four-part series. The series told the personal stories of Sands' family and friends as they watched her health deteriorate after serving 15 months in the war in Iraq and closely examined her VA medical records.

According to Sands' family, she believed her illness was due to smoke she inhaled from burn pits during the time she served in Iraq. VA medical reports stated Sands also had repeated exposure to smoke from burning jeeps, trucks improvised explosive devices explosions and mortar explosions.

VA physicians diagnosed Sands with lupus in 2008 and her autopsy report concludes that she died from the disease, though her family, friends and some of the people she served with believe otherwise.

During the time she was sick, Sands also repeatedly told VA medical staff that she believed her illness was due to dangerous chemical exposure.

The VA previously had asked the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences to review existing literature on the potential health effects of exposure to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. A report released earlier last week by the institute focused on a burn pit used to dispose of waste at Joint Base Balad in Iraq, which burned up to 200 tons of waste per day in 2007. The report found that the levels of most pollutants at the base were not higher than levels measured at other polluted sites worldwide, but it said there was insufficient evidence to draw firm conclusions about any long-term health effects.

The legislation would require the VA to commission an independent, scientific study to recommend the most effective means of addressing the medical needs that are likely to result from exposure to open burn pits.

To create and maintain the database could cost about $2 million over five years, Akin said.

Staff writer Erin Ragan contributed to this report.

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