The Veterans Affairs Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry is now live.
Advocacy groups for service members who believe they have developed illnesses from working and living near burn-pit disposal sites in Iraq and Afghanistan noticed Thursday they could log in and register on the VA’s public health website .
More than 18 months in the making, the registry is open to active duty and former troops to report exposures to airborne hazards such as burn pits, oil well fires and other forms of pollution and document their health problems.
“This is a great stepping stone in a long journey, the initial acknowledgment that people are sick and that illnesses related to burn pits do exist,” said Rosie Lopez-Torres, co-founder of Burn Pits 360 and wife of retired Army Capt. LeRoy Torres, who developed a rare lung disorder after serving in Iraq.
Congress passed a law in January 2013 requiring VA to establish the registry for those exposed to potentially toxic fumes, but the department initially balked, saying the effort was redundant since VA already tracks service members through an injury and illness surveillance system.
VA officials acknowledge that troops may suffer from illnesses related to environmental exposures and has established a surveillance program for service members exposed to hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen, at a water treatment facility near Basra in 2003, but also say there is not enough scientific evidence to prove that exposure to burn pits causes long-term health problems.
In May, VA declined to list constrictive bronchiolitis — the lung condition diagnosed in service members who helped fight a sulfur mine fire near Iraq in 2003 as well as others who served elsewhere, including Torres — as a presumptive service-connected illness.
Burn Pits 360 has been contacted by more than 3,000 troops or family members who report symptoms and illnesses they believe are related to environmental exposures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Djibouti.
On Thursday, Lopez-Torres said she expects many of these contacts to register with VA.
“I am pleased to know that there is something official now. I am sad though, that we’ve already lost some heroes to their battle with disease,” Lopez-Torres said.
Veterans have returned home after serving overseas with pulmonary problems ranging from shortness of breath and asthma to pulmonary fibrosis and constrictive bronchiolitis.
Others report developing various types of cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Crohn’s disease, unexplained rashes, fatigue and more.
A 2011 Institute of Medicine report said current literature and research lack conclusive evidence linking burn pits to poor health.
But documents produced by several Air Force and Army officials assigned to monitor environmental exposures in Iraq showed concern that the air quality near burn pits posed an “increased risk of long-term adverse health conditions” to troops.
More than 200 plaintiffs are party to a multidistrict lawsuit against the contracting firm that operated many of the burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The contractor, KBR, petitioned the Supreme Court in May to hear arguments in the case, Alan Metzgar et. al. v. KBR Inc., arguing that it should be heard by the high court because it addresses issues of constitutional law on combatant activities and contract support.
This week, the Supreme Court invited the U.S. solicitor general to file a brief on the government’s views of the case, indicating it is weighing whether to place it on the court docket.