President Signs Burn-Pit Registry Law
President Barack Obama signed a law last week directing the Department of Veterans Affairs to set up and maintain a ‘burn-pit’ registry. This is a list of veterans who have been exposed to potentially toxic fumes emanating from diesel fuel, human excrement, and other waste and debris in Iraq, Afghanistan and other austere areas of operation.
Although burn-pits are nothing new – they date back to ancient times – NBC News has referred to burn-pit exposure as “this generation’s Agent Orange.”
This isn’t necessarily about the small latrine pits made out of 55-gallon drums. Some contractors in Iraq actually maintained massive burn pits that were hundreds of yards wide, and did so very close to troops working and living areas, in some cases. These pits used diesel fuel to burn plastics, tires, chemicals, excrement, batteries – including rare earth and heavy metal batteries.
One study measured the cancer rate among troops stationed at Balad – a major Forward Operating Base in Iraq and home to perhaps the largest burn pit in the country – and found the cancer risk was eight times higher among those troops stationed at Balad for more than a year than among the general population, controlling for age and sex. Dioxin and particulate exposure were also each 50 times higher than acceptable levels, according to a 2007 study.
The new law follows a series of lawsuits against prominent military contractors, Kellogg, Brown and Root and Halliburton, alleging that these burn pit operators failed to properly maintain these pits, mitigate hazards or warn servicemembers of the potential harmful effects of the fumes.
One suit alleges that KBR built a large burn pit upwind of troops’ living quarters – in violation of their contract and DoD directives.
The burn-pit directory will give the Department of Veterans Affairs a database of individuals with exposure to the pits, help them track long-term medical issues among this population and compare them with other groups, and facilitate communication if effective treatments are discovered.
A series of academic studies has been undertaken, and some of them have been published within the last year. At least one study found an increase in incidents of asthma and other pulmonary disorders after deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The VA has not yet issued instructions on how to sign up for the burn-pit registry. It will publish instructions when the registry is up and running.