March 3, 2017
A new study on burn pits highlights the need for more comprehensive data in veterans' health records.
The study, required by a 2013 law, also established a registry for servicemembers exposed to toxic chemicals generated from open burn pits. The study is a joint effort between the VA and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. To date, over 64,000 veterans have joined the registry.
However, the study identifies shortfalls in its work, namely the fact that the report was limited in scope and registries are, by nature, self-reporting tools.
As it stands, the authors of the study say a burn pit registry serves as a way for people exposed to hazardous toxins in burn pits to document their health problems and for the VA to compile a list of people interested in burn pit issues.
During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military has relied on burn pits as a way to incinerate waste and junk. This means things such as batteries, tires, and human waste have all been set ablaze, often with things like gasoline or jet fuel, and usually within close proximity to military bases.
A 2015 inspector general report found during the height of conflict in Afghanistan, the military generated about 440 tons of waste a day. According to the report, “[During] the first four years of contingency operations in Afghanistan, the U.S. military used open-air burn pits exclusively to dispose of its solid waste.”
Long-term exposure to burn pits has been thought to coincide with higher rates of certain types of cancer, respiratory diseases, and other illnesses. The VA continues to say there isn't enough research available to directly link any medical conditions with exposure to burn pits.
Still, the IG report called the continued use of burn pits “indefensible.”
For older veterans, burn pits bring up painful memories and comparisons to Agent Orange, the lethal defoliant used during the Vietnam War, whose toxic effects went unrecognized officially for many years.
The burn pit registry and study show both DoD and the VA need to capture more information in military health records. By including information like dates of service and location tours, health care experts can use big data to find clearer linkages between military service and health conditions.
Big data could eventually reduce the need for epidemiological studies and expedite the time it takes for symptoms to emerge and establishing presumptive status for toxic exposure.
“Ultimately, having more comprehensive health records saves not only time and money, but also lives,” said Cdr. René Campos, USN (Ret), MOAA's director of Government Relations for Veterans, Wounded, Ill & Injured Health Care.