The tragic death of Vice President Joe Biden's son Beau from brain cancer highlights numerous issues involving veterans and toxic exposure. At least one blogger has suggested that Beau Biden's brain cancer was caused by exposure to toxic chemicals disseminated in the air while being burned in so-called burn pits during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Beau Biden served in the Army National Guard in 2008, deploying to Iraq for a year.
Burn pits have been controversial, in part because the Department of Veterans Affairs has seemed reluctant to acknowledge that their use during the country's most recent wars could result in long-term health problems. As recently as 2011, the VA reported that the primary consequence of exposure to smoke from burning chemicals and other toxic substances in burn pits was skin irritation and coughing. Although a soldier's proximity and extended exposure to burn pit smoke may increase the likelihood of developing symptoms, the VA noted that in most cases, the effects of such exposure cease when the soldier is no longer exposed to the burning material.
By 2014, however, the VA had launched a program to identify military personnel who had been exposed to burn pits during their service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Called the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, the program was designed not to treat veterans, but to conduct research into the effects of exposure to burn pits. That the VA continues to investigate suggests that burn pits may not be as benign as first thought.
Veterans who believe their health problems are the result of exposure to burn pit smoke may file for VA disability compensation. Since the VA has yet to recognize any diseases that are presumptively related to burn pit exposure, claims stemming from such exposure are decided on a case-by-case basis.
In addition to exposure to toxic smoke from burn pits, veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars may experience health problems caused by exposure to other toxic agents. The VA recently acknowledged that veterans of the Iraq war in particular could have been exposed to chemical warfare agents. The exposure occurred when military personnel found old chemical weapons from the 1980s, weapons that were common in Iraq during that period.
According to an article in Stars and Stripes, military personnel were instructed to not report, or sanitize, the discovery of chemical weapons. However, several hundred soldiers and others came forward for an investigative report by the New York Times that revealed exposure to sarin and mustard gas. For example, one retired Army major was told to say that his team had found "nothing of significance" when they had actually found more than 2,400 nerve-agent rockets.
Because of the investigation by the New York Times, the military has now acknowledged that soldiers in Iraq handled and disposed of many abandoned chemical weapons. In March 2015, the undersecretary of the Army apologized for the treatment that soldiers exposed to these hazards had received. It turns out that in addition to handling decaying chemical weapons, military personnel in Iraq faced exposure from roadside bombs that frequently contained toxic chemicals such as chlorine. In short, even if soldiers escaped injury from the explosion, they may have developed illnesses and conditions from toxins in the smoke after detonation.
Veterans worried about the possible consequences of their exposure in Iraq may have received some answers to their questions. As a result of persistent questions from the New York Times, the Army recently declassified a report that described what was in barrels that members of the 2nd Platoon of the 811th Ordnance Company had handled. The barrels contained benzenamine, 3,4-dimethyl, an organic compound with multiple industrial uses and a known carcinogen, according to the report. When asked why the soldiers had not been told what was in the barrels, the Army could only say that the report was actually written by a different group that was not in the chain of command, the Iraq Survey Group.
Although the VA has started to undo the damage created by its secrecy about chemical exposure in Iraq, the problem is certain to continue for some time. Illnesses and conditions such as cancer that are associated with chemical exposure can take many years to develop. One can only hope that by the time a significant cohort of vets begins to suffer from the consequences of their exposure that the VA will have determined how to handle the situation.