The National Academies of Sciences called on federal agencies Wednesday to launch a new, coordinated effort to monitor and research the health of Gulf War and post-9/11 veterans affected by toxic exposures, as well as track the health of their living and future children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The recommendation came in a new report from the Committee on Gulf War and Health, which was tasked by the Department of Veterans Affairs with reviewing existing scientific research on toxic exposures to find areas that need more study.
The committee spent two years looking through more than 4,000 papers on toxic exposures written by VA, Defense Department and outside researchers. What they found was a lack of information about how servicemembers’ exposures affect their descendants.
Servicemembers in the Gulf War and post-9/11 generation have been at risk for exposure to chemical and biological agents, smoke from burn pits and oil-well fires and depleted uranium. Some evidence exists between those exposures and developmental problems in their descendants, as well as low birth weight, preterm birth and childhood leukemia, the committee found.
“This is an area where evidence is very hard to collect,” said Kenneth Ramos, the committee chairman and professor of medicine at the University of Arizona Health Sciences.
The committee envisions a future program that would monitor servicemembers’ health from recruits through the remainder of their lives. For children, health monitoring would begin in the womb.
Committee members described it as an expensive undertaking that would require vast resources and collaboration between the Defense Department and VA. They predicted ethical challenges with collecting data from participants during their lifetimes.
It’s up to government agencies to decide whether to follow through on the committee’s recommendation. The support and help of large veterans organizations would be “absolutely essential,” Ramos said.
“In the end, VA and veterans must weigh the risk of conducting and participating in such research against the risk of not seeking answers,” the report reads. “Only VA, in consultation with veterans and their descendants, can make this decision.”
The VA currently recognizes a link between toxic exposures and birth defects for descendants of Vietnam War veterans. Enough evidence exists to connect spina bifida, in which a developing baby’s spinal cord fails to develop properly, to parents’ Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam. Those descendants are eligible for VA benefits.
Benefits are also available to children of women who served in Vietnam and suffer from birth defects such as congenital heart disease, a cleft palate and hip dysplasia, among others.
Toxic exposures in Iraq and Afghanistan are sometimes referred to as the Agent Orange of the most recent generation of veterans. In 2013, the VA created a burn pit registry to track exposures to airborne toxins, but some stakeholders, including Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, argue the registry is underutilized. The group supports legislation in Congress, the Burn Pits Accountability Act, to increase efforts to monitor servicemembers’ toxic exposures in combat zones.
During a conference call Wednesday about the new report, Ramos said the health monitoring program that the National Academy of Sciences recommends is “badly needed” to answer questions about toxic exposures.
“The other aspect of this is that the beneficiaries of a program like this is not just going to be the military or veterans themselves, it’s going to be extremely important to our nation as a whole,” he said. “Given its importance, we need to make sure we all continue from here in meaningful ways.”
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