On Memorial Day, we honored the servicemembers who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. All our servicemembers and veterans have put their lives and their health on the line to keep us safe, but even those who come home safely can face long-term health risks from their service.
During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military relied on open-air burn pits to dispose of waste, including tires, batteries, and used medical supplies. The smoke and particulate matter from those pits could be toxic – some studies have linked burn pit exposure to neurologic issues and respiratory diseases.
The military didn’t issue any guidance to keep servicemembers away from the pits until 2011 – nearly a decade after the war in Afghanistan began. That means millions of servicemembers – as many as 3.7 million, according to the VA – were potentially exposed to toxic smoke.
That’s why I’ve been working with my colleagues for years to draw attention to the health hazards veterans face burn pits. Last year, I introduced the Burn Pit Accountability Act, which was included in the National Defense Authorization Act that became law.
But there’s still more work to do. I’m introducing the Heath Robinson Burn Pit Transparency Act, to require the Department of Veterans Affairs to collect more data about how many of our veterans were exposed to toxic burn pits, and may be suffering as a result.
The bill is named for Heath Robinson, who was twice named Non-Commissioned Officer of the Year by the Ohio Army National Guard. He was deployed to the Middle East, where he was exposed to toxic burn pits. Heath was later diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Earlier this month, he tragically lost his battle with that disease.
This loss, and the harm to other veterans from burn pit exposure, is a cost of going to war that we must take responsibility for as a country.
On the Veterans Affairs Committee we have a long history of putting party politics aside to work on behalf of the people who served this country. I’m hopeful we can make progress on this bill, to take steps to help connect the dots between exposure to burn pits and the illnesses that so many of our veterans have developed.
Democrat Sherrod Brown represents Ohio in the U.S. Senate.