The burn pits where the U.S. military disposed of everything from electronics to human waste to scrap metal in its Iraq and Afghanistan theater of operations ranged up to 2 acres in size. By necessity, the pits, which sometimes relied on jet fuel for incineration, were located inside military bases’ boundaries. Locating them outside the base in hostile territory would have made the workaday task of waste disposal too risky.
But as veterans have returned home, questions have simmered about the airborne health hazards that may have been created by the pits. Veterans such as Melissa Gillett, who served in the Minnesota National Guard, report that it was nearly impossible to avoid steadily breathing in the pits’ foul-smelling fumes. She is one of a growing number of veterans who believe their respiratory ailments are linked to this exposure and are demanding greater recognition of their concerns.
That makes U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s recent involvement in this issue both timely and welcome. Minnesota’s senior senator, along with North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, has introduced legislation directing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to create a “center of excellence” within the agency to better understand the health threats posed by burn pits and other common pollutants in Iraq and Afghanistan — such as sand and dust. Among other things, the legislation calls for ramping up research on these risks and developing best practices for treatment that may be needed.
The bill’s cosponsors include Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken, South Dakota Republican Sen. Mike Rounds, New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain. Regrettably, the House version of the bill does not have any cosponsors from Minnesota’s delegation. Given the thousands of Minnesotans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, this legislation merits their support.
The legislation also merits the public’s support. While research conducted so far has not established a definitive connection between the burn pits and human health problems, the highest-profile review was done in 2011. The report, which is from the respected Institute of Medicine and was done at the VA’s request, did not find a conclusive link. It said “insufficient evidence prevented the IOM committee from developing firm conclusions about what long-term health effects might be seen in service members exposed to burn pits.’’
In the meantime, thousands of veterans have made their concerns known by signing up for the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pits Registry that Congress ordered the VA to establish. About 65,000 veterans have registered. In addition, grass-roots groups such as Burn Pit 360 and others have sprung up to advocate for veterans who are concerned about the chemicals, heavy metals and carcinogens.
Dr. Dave Hamlar acknowledges concerns that science has not proven the burn pits’ risk. Nevertheless, he said, “It is something worth investigating.’’ Hamlar is an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery and a Minnesota Air National Guard brigadier general. Along with Gillett, he has advocated for the “Center of Excellence” bill.
Klobuchar, a Democrat, has an increasingly high profile in Congress. Advocating for this important veterans’ health issue is an appropriate use of her growing clout. It will also push the VA — which was shamefully slow to respond to concerns about appointment wait times — to take these veterans’ concerns seriously and act on them.