“Sense of Urgency” As Senators Propose Several Bills To Aid Vets Exposed To Toxic Fumes

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Millions of veterans exposed to toxic substances during their military service could qualify for additional care and benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs under several landmark legislation reintroduced in Congress. About 3.5 million U.S. veterans have been exposed to toxic fumes or other carcinogens during their time of service.

The Toxic Exposure in the American Military (TEAM) Act creates sweeping mandates for VA to research further, track and care for eligible veterans who fall ill because of exposure to toxic substances during service — perhaps the most comprehensive legislation on toxic military exposures ever introduced in Congress.

Battling Cancer

Senators Kirsten Gellibrand and Marco Rubio, along with veterans advocate Jon Stewart, among others, have announced legislation to help service members who have found themselves battling cancer or respiratory and auto-immune diseases due to exposure to burn pits and other toxins. They say this group of suffering veterans has been overlooked for too long. Stewart said:

“If you have a toxic wound- And I’m telling you, the toxic wounds are as real as any physicals wound that you would get from war- They don’t know what to do with you. And you spend your time when you come back home basically as a defendant in a trial for your own health care.”

The new bill would remove the “Burden of Proof” from a veteran to show his or her condition was linked to toxic exposure during military service.

Similarly, Michigan Reps. Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat, and Peter Meijer, a Republican, introduced a bill Thursday that removes a critical barrier to health benefits for veterans exposed to toxic fumes while serving overseas. The seventh piece of legislation was introduced in Congress in recent weeks designed to help veterans exposed to fumes from burn pits while serving on military installations.

Became Sick After Breathing Toxic Fumes

On both sides of the political aisle, lawmakers in Washington are ramping up efforts to expand care for veterans who became sick after breathing the toxic fumes. And the litany of bills illustrates the growing appetite in Congress to address the issue, especially with President Joe Biden believing his son died from toxic exposure. Shane Liermann, the deputy national legislative director for benefits for the advocacy group Disabled American Veterans, said: 

“We have a unique opportunity before us. There has never been this much momentum before. There has never been this much legislation before.” 

Lawmakers, veterans and advocates contend the high level of attention is significant and makes a proposal on the issue more likely to pass a vote. The measures are described as complementary to each other that all different tackle parts of the problem.

Conditions Caused By Toxic Exposure

The U.S. military used open-air pits during the 1990s and the post-9/11 wars to dispose of waste such as jet fuel, paint and plastics in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other countries. The smoke and emissions from the burn pits contained chemicals that can cause several health problems.

The bill introduced by Slotkin and Meijer would formally recognize veterans who served near burn pits on overseas deployments were exposed to airborne hazards and other toxins, easing the veterans’ burden of proof. Dubbed a “concession of exposure” bill, it would concede veterans’ exposure during deployed services. Slotkin, who served as a CIA analyst, said:

“As someone who lived close to a burn pit in each of my three tours in Iraq, I know this is an important first step in cutting through red tape and getting veterans care for the conditions caused by toxic exposure.” 

The Veterans Burn Pits Exposure Recognition Act is a companion bill to that measure, which was reintroduced in February by Sens. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

The burden on Veterans and Their Families

Establishing a solid link between toxic exposures and the illnesses they cause has proved difficult over the years. Pentagon records of exposures are notoriously incomplete or nonexistent — including the locations of burn pits and other hazards — leaving veterans waiting as they grow more ill or die. Both VA and the Defense Department — the two largest federal agencies — place the burden on veterans and their families to prove they were exposed, when and where, with documents that often doesn’t exist. Hassan said: 

“We often place a huge onus on our veterans and service members, especially those who have been exposed to toxic environments […] we have to make sure we’re addressing the health challenges that occurred as a result of their service.”

The TEAM Act also requires VA to respond to new scientific evidence regarding diseases associated with toxic exposure within an established time, establishes a scientific commission to research the health effects of toxic exposure in veterans and report the commission’s findings to the VA and Congress, and ensures VA enters into agreements with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to conduct scientific studies regarding associations between diseases and exposure to toxic substances during military service.

These bills aren’t the first efforts to help veterans exposed to toxic environments. Some lawmakers have pushed other legislation that gives care and compensation to veterans, though those efforts have stalled up to now.

High Expectations

But some advocates said they believe having high-profile figures, such as Biden, pushing the issue has kept the conversation on toxic exposure alive. Comedian Jon Stewart has also brought attention to the issue by standing alongside advocacy groups and lawmakers to launch a campaign last year that helped raise awareness. For years, Stewart led outreach efforts to attain benefits for first responders in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Biden has said he believes toxic smoke is the cause of the brain cancer that killed his son Beau in 2015. Beau Biden was a major in the Delaware Army National Guard and was exposed to burn pits during a deployment to Iraq.

As debate and discussions begin for the bill, Tillis said he anticipates some additional amendments and provisions will be attached. Still, the veterans’ organizations are needed to help support the bill in both parties. Tillis said:

“I believe in the last administration, and the real question was making sure that when we provide all of the authorities under the TEAM Act is that we also make sure that it’s properly funded,” ‘That’s what we’ll continue to work on with our colleagues in the Senate and the House.”

Once it’s through, he said he has “high expectations” that President Joe Biden will sign it into law.

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