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From burn pits to kitchen sinks: The big problem of toxic exposures

At the height of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, over 200 burn pits filled with human waste, electronics, medical waste, jet fuel and other materials blazed. Photo credit: Julianne Showalter, U.S. Air Force

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The images of and stories about service members suffering chronic illnesses and various cancers after throwing waste items into burn pits during combat operations over the past two decades only presents a part of the toxic exposure problem the military faces.

While it is clear that burn pits do release toxins into the atmosphere that do lead to medical problems, they are not the only source of toxic exposure that can sicken military members.

"Carcinogen-related conditions gained massive press in the wake of legislation that stood to leave 9/11 first responders without care. The attention was well deserved and needed for a specific group but also drew a shortsighted correlation that service members were experiencing the same things," wrote Army veteran Keith Dow in a Nov. 3, 2021 article published in Task & Purpose.

"Burn pits are presumed to be the culprit instead of repeated brain injuries from exposure to blasts or any other host of injuries or exposures regularly endured by servicemembers. This assumption can be devastating for the individual as it can hinder proper diagnosis and preventative treatment." 

At the height of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, over 200 burn pits filled with human waste, electronics, medical waste, jet fuel and other materials blazed.

In a letter dated in September 2020 to his constituents, U.S. Representative Paul Ruiz (D-CA) pointed out that "after nearly 20 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Global War on Terror and 30 years since the Gulf War ... the Department of Veterans Affairs is still denying close to 80% of all burn pit related claims veterans file."

While this revelation is deadly serious, to advocates like Dow it does not capture the entire amount of exposure to toxins that many members of the military face.

"Because of our efforts on Agent Orange, we became aware of toxic exposure issues arising in the Gulf War veterans and later the post-9/11 veterans," John Rowan, national president of Vietnam Veterans of America, said in testimony before a joint session of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs committee in February 2020. "And recently, we have become aware of the toxic exposures facing our military here at home."

From overseas deployments to water from the kitchen sink faucet, service members still run the risk of toxic exposure.

In a report released in 2020 by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), nearly 700 military installations are either confirmed or suspected of ground water contamination caused by fire-fighting foam (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS) used in vehicle and aircraft mishaps.

PFAS refers to thousands of man-made compounds used in countless products, including nonstick cookware, water-repellent sports gear, cosmetics and grease-resistant food packaging, along with firefighting foams.

Bear in mind, this is only one toxic chemical that has drawn significant attention; there are others - often referred to as "forever chemicals" - including motor oil - that also contribute to toxic exposure.

The report goes on to say that PFAS have been confirmed at 328 sites according to Pentagon data analyzed by the EWG.

Joint Base Lewis-McChord is on the list of having PFAS in its ground water.

"Some of highest detections anywhere in the world have been found in groundwater" at military installations, said Scott Faber, the Environmental Working Group's senior vice president for government affairs, in a September 2021 article.

That means personnel "were drinking extraordinarily polluted water for much longer than they should have been, in violation of the (Defense) department's own policies."

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets 70 parts-per-trillion (ppt) as the maximum safe level for PFAS water contamination. 

In a separate EWG report published in 2019, concentrations of PFAS chemicals in ground water at McChord Field were 303 ppt; at Joint Base Lewis-Main there were 144.8 ppt.

"The level of PFAS found in the drinking water at both installations is far higher than most experts believe is safe for people," said Faber.

"Service members who work at these facilities and the people who live nearby are likely drinking water contaminated with PFAS chemicals at concentrations that raise serious health concerns."

Faber added that the only way to tackle this growing contamination crisis impacting military personnel around the country and in the local area is for Congress to take action.

Congress is well aware of both toxic exposure from burn pits and "forever chemicals" in the country.

On March 26 of this year, Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced the bipartisan and bicameral Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act.  One of its key features is the removal of "burden of proof" from the veteran to establish a direct service connection between their health conditions and exposure.

"Congress cannot sit by as the VA ignores its duty," Gillibrand stated.

In April of this year, the House Committee on Veterans Affairs introduced two new bills; the Veterans Burn Pits Exposure Recognition Act and (like the Senate's bill) the Presumptive Benefits For War Fighters Exposed To Burn Pits And Other Toxins Act.

The White House just recently recognized the problem; on Nov. 11, 2021 the Biden Administration signaled that it is establishing a new policy for veterans who have been exposed to toxic burn pits during their service overseas.

"Anybody who was anywhere near those burn pits, that's all they have to show and they get covered, they get all their health care covered," the President said.

While this is very good news for many veterans, it does not address the point that Dow made - there is also a domestic exposure to toxins issue that is not being addressed.

But one bit of hope remains. On July 31, 2020 Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) introduced the Toxic Exposure in the American Military Act of 2020 (TEAM Act).

"For thousands of service members who sacrificed to serve our country, that selfless service included exposure to chemical and environmental hazards, both in the United States and abroad, resulting in real and potential health risks," the first sentence of the bill reads.

Service members and their families - as well as the communities around military installations - can only wait and see if Congress takes action concerning exposure to toxins in this country.

"Awareness and education are the fuel to drive change and transform the discussion about toxic exposures and ultimately the health and medical care needed," concluded Dow.

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