THE EDITORIAL BOARD
Toxic smoke from open burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan may be responsible for sickening countless Americans who served there.
Just how many veterans may have suffered cancer and other illness caused by the burn pits remains unclear because military doctors are not even examining service members and veterans during regular medical exams to discover whether those who worked near the burn pits may have been affected by the toxic smoke.
A bill that would have required such screening died in Congress last year. Then, earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in a lawsuit filed by service members who claim their illnesses were caused by burn pit exposure.
Now, the Burn Pits Accountability Act has new life. Reintroduced in the Senate by Amy Klobuchar (D. Minn.) and Dan Sullivan (R. Alaska), the bill would require doctors performing routine exams to determine whether their patients were exposed to toxic airborne chemicals. The Defense Department would then determine whether these service members and veterans were stationed near an open burn pit in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The bill was drafted after an increasing number of veterans reported developing cancer and other illnesses after they worked near open burn pits used to destroy everything from everyday garbage to paint and other toxins. In many cases, the open-air burning pits were used in areas without landfills or any other way to dispose of waste.
The anecdotal accounts of rare cancers in veterans have led many to compare the toxic burn pits to Agent Orange, the cancer-causing defoliant used in Vietnam.
Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown said he plans to co-sponsor the measure to require screening.
The bill would be a good first step, but much more is necessary. Congress should quickly pass this legislation and then move on to expedite research into the burn pits and the toxins that may be affecting people who worked near them.
Courts and the Veterans Affairs administration contend that there is no evidence yet connecting burn pit exposure to the illnesses reported by soldiers and veterans.
In the case of Agent Orange the government dragged its feet for decades before acknowledging its responsibility and compensating victims for birth defects and other health issues related to the chemical. The U.S. must not repeat this mistake.
Investigating the effects of toxic burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq must become an urgent priority for Congress.