The Senate Appropriations Committee is turning up the heat on the Veterans Affairs Department to establish a registry for troops exposed to potentially toxic fumes from open-air burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Unhappy with the pace VA has set to establish the registry mandated by the 2012 Dignified Burial and Veterans Improvement Act, the committee on Thursday approved an amendment to the $158 billion military construction and veterans appropriations bill recommending VA inform veterans and family members about the registry and work with the Defense Department to educate troops on the possible health consequences of exposure.
The amendment would require VA to give Congress a report on its planned timeline and communications strategy for reaching veterans and informing its own personnel about the registry.
The Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry is supposed to be available by January 2014. It is meant to track troops who served in areas where burn pits were used for waste disposal and notify participants of significant developments in treatment and research on environmental exposure-related diseases. Participation is voluntary.
On June 5, VA began soliciting input on the registry on regulations.gov as required by law. In the first two weeks, more than 120 people commented, providing information ranging from what was tossed into the pits, illnesses and symptoms, to privacy concerns.
One service member’s family even posted a photo of an unexplained rash that developed on their loved one’s abdomen.
“My husband has suffered with rashes, trouble breathing, tires very easily, short term memory problems/loss, sleep apnea, unable to control bowel moments at times (new symptom), severe headaches, an inside burning pain throughout his middle section,” one veteran’s spouse wrote.
VA acknowledges that troops may suffer from illnesses related to environmental exposures. It has established a surveillance program for service members exposed to hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen, at a water treatment facility near Basra in 2003, and it lists nine infectious diseases found in the Middle East as potentially compensatory service-related conditions.
The department opposed creation of a burn pit registry, calling the initiative redundant since it already tracks service members through an injury and illness surveillance system.
VA officials also said registries, by nature, are not effective epidemiological tools that produce limited and possibly skewed results because participants are self-selecting.
VA documents estimate the project will cost roughly $2.2 million in fiscal 2013: $600,000 in contract costs, $1.5 million for information technology and $70,000 for outreach to veterans.
Daniel Sullivan, president of the the Sergeant Sullivan Center, a nonprofit concerned with deployment health issues, said he has found the cost estimates, along with VA’s approach to establishing the registry, “strange.” Among his concerns:
■The solicitation for comment was for feedback on the registry’s methodology, including an online questionnaire, but VA didn’t post the draft questionnaire online.
■The draft questionnaire obtained by the Sullivan Center lacks questions specific to deployment history, possible exposures, physical symptoms and later medical diagnoses.
“This is an opportunity to collect some very useful information. If the point is to find out what exposures may have caused what illnesses, shouldn’t there be specific questions about history and diagnosis?” Sullivan asked.
“It also seems to me that the whole point of a registry is outreach. It could be a wonderful tool but it’s only as good as the number of people you have signed up. To spend only $70,000 on outreach? I’m baffled,” he added.