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VA to expand benefits for vets exposed to toxic chemicals from burn pits

U.S. Marines with 1st Marine Logistics Group (1st MLG) burn black water. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Jason W. Fudge)
May 27, 2021

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced Thursday that it will start the process to expand critical health care benefits to veterans exposed to toxic chemicals as a result of burn pits and other air-quality issues in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere since the Persian Gulf War, but some veterans advocates say its not enough.

According to a VA press release, the department will begin the process to expand benefits for disability claims linked to “the role that particulate matter pollution plays in generating chronic respiratory conditions, which may include asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis for Veterans who served in the Southwest Asia theater of operations during the Persian Gulf War and/or after September 19, 2001, or in Afghanistan and Uzbekistan during the Persian Gulf War.”

“VA is establishing a holistic approach to determining toxic exposure presumption going forward. We are moving out smartly in initiating action to consider these and other potential new presumptions, grounded in science and in keeping with my authority as Secretary of VA,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough in a statement.

The effort to raise awareness of the issue and get coverage expanded was spearheaded by comedian Jon Stewart and other veteran advocates, including the non-profit group “BurnPits360.”

BurnPits360, an organization leading the charge to seek benefits for those who suffered adverse effects from exposure to hazardous materials burned abroad, tweeted Tuesday, “12 presumptive illnesses isn’t enough! Stop negotiating at the expense of our war fighters.”

“Do the right thing and grant them the cancers. #burnpits,” the group wrote.

Hundreds of veterans have reported their cancer diagnoses – which they believe to be service-related — to BurnPits360. 

As part of their ongoing work related to veterans impacted by toxic exposure, Stewart and other veteran advocates met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill Wednesday to unveil legislation designed to remove the burden of proof from veterans who claim to have been exposed to toxic substances while serving, Fox 40 reported.

Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who is also working on the issue, said, “we owe it to [veterans] to not repeat the mistake of Agent Orange.”

“We talked about how all these pieces of the puzzle fit together but we’ve also gotta be judicious so that we don’t reach a point where we lose support purely on the financial impact,” Tillis said.

Stewart addressed the financial concerns, stating, “I remember when they said the same thing about the cost of the war, they all said, ‘no, this is too much, we can’t’ – oh wait, no they didn’t.”

“They spent whatever they needed to spend to get it done and this is part of the total cost of that,” he added.

Also announced on Thursday was the VA’s decision to begin processing claims for new conditions presumptively associated with exposure to herbicide agents, commonly known as Agent Orange. The conditions include bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinsonism for veterans who served in the Republic of Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

“Many of our Nation’s Veterans have waited a long time for these benefits,” McDonough said. “VA will not make them wait any longer. This is absolutely the right thing to do for Veterans and their families.”