TARPON SPRINGS — After years of research and community input, a bill has been introduced in Congress to provide immediate medical care and benefits for veterans battling illnesses from exposure to toxic-waste burn pits.
In Tarpon Springs this week, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis unveiled the bipartisan “Protection for Veterans’ Burn Pit Exposure Act," creating the presumption that certain medical conditions can be traced to the burn pits in people who were exposed to them.
That’s not the current position of the Department of Veteran Affairs states, which contends that “at this time, research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits."
As a result, a number of veterans have been locked out of VA medical care and disability benefits for illnesses that often are terminal.
Bilirakis, the Palm Harbor Republican, proposes in his bill allowing the VA to consider new studies connecting exposure and illnesses, conducted by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.
“It’s the least we can do for our heroes,” Bilirakis said at a news conference Tuesday.
In 2011, the academies studied the long-term health effects of exposure to burn pits — the military’s crude, low-tech method for disposing of trash in war zones — but were unable to develop firm conclusions because of insufficient evidence.
Two years later, under a congressional order, the VA created a national registry for veterans who were exposed to the burn pits.
Local Navy veteran Lauren Price, who suffers from a terminal lung disease from her exposure to burn pits overseas, said the registry hasn’t produced any major results yet.
“It’s this gaping hole in cyberspace,” Price said. “All this data goes in, and like all black holes, nothing comes out”
What’s more, a 2017 analysis of the registry by the national academies found flaws in how and what the VA was collecting.
The Department of Defense, in a letter to Congress earlier this year, noted that the pits can emit harmful smoke and flumes but defended their continued use at temporary sites where they’re the only acceptable alternative. The department said longer term, safer alternatives would be expensive.
Meanwhile, veterans like Andrew Brewer, who served in the Indiana National Guard, struggle with daily life because of respiratory problems he traces to inhaling smoke from burn pits in 2009.
Brewer, 31, said that a civilian doctor in 2015 gave him about 15 more years to live.
“I knew what I signed up for but I didn’t realize I had signed up for this,” he said.
Bilirakis said he hopes the new bill, similar to a bill that died in the last session of Congress, can bring meaningful change without the agonizing delays suffered by Vietnam veterans exposed to herbicides like Agent Orange.
It wasn’t until June this year that President Donald Trump signed a law granting presumptive benefits to Navy veterans from the Vietnam War, four decades after the conflict ended.
The VA had refused to grant service-related benefits to these so-called “blue water” veterans because of disputes over their level of exposure to toxic chemicals in the waters of Vietnam.
And still, these veterans must wait a year for their benefits requests to be processed.
Said Bilirakis, “Burn pit toxic exposure is the agent orange of this generation."