The House of Representatives recently passed a piece of legislation that was introduced by Michigan representatives Elissa Slotkin (MI-08) and Peter Meijer (MI-03) as part of a larger Senate-passed bipartisan package named the PACT Act. This specific bill would make it easier for military veterans to access care and benefits for illnesses tied to prolonged exposure to burn pits while serving overseas on U.S. bases in areas like Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries in Southeast Asia. The original bill was first introduced back in 2021 but was later integrated, along with other legislative bills, into the PACT Act to address health care, presumption of service-connection, research, and resources for veterans who were exposed to toxic substances during military service.
Burn pits were commonly used in Iraq, Afghanistan and other overseas locations to dispose of waste collected on military bases. Items that were often disposed of in these pits were chemical mixtures, medical waste, human waste, paint, fuel, metal, plastics, rubber, and other materials. All of these elements when burned in the same pit would produce a dangerous toxic smoke that can cover the air for acres of land. These poison clouds have been linked to respiratory illnesses, autoimmune disorders, and rare cancers in veterans for over a decade now. In fact, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that 3.5 million veterans since 2001 served in war zones where they could have been exposed to burn pits and announced that nine rare respiratory cancers are now presumed service-connected disabilities due to military environmental exposures to the pits.
According to a 2022 member survey conducted by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), 82 percent of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have been suffering the consequences of burn pit exposure and/or airborne toxic materials during their years of service. About 49 percent of those exposed believe they have symptoms associated with the exposure. The effects have been compared by both Slotkin and Meijer to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange and pesticides the United States used in the Vietnam War which were also linked to cancer diagnoses.
Both representatives served tours in Iraq in intelligence roles and wished to address the burdens veterans often face when accessing health care benefits for injuries sustained from their time of service.Even President Biden, who is eager to sign this into law, has a personal stake in the legislative package. During his State of the Union speech this year, President Biden made reference to his suspicions that his son, Beau, died of brain cancer in 2015 because of his exposure to burn pits when he served in Iraq. With the PACT Act about to be signed into law, there will be an established presumption of service connection for 23 new medical conditions associated with exposure to burn pits, including asthma, several cancers and other respiratory illnesses. Also, VA personnel through this package will be given training to learn to identify and treat veterans affected by toxic exposure, including through screening and testing.
Slotkin said the bill and similar legislation was debated in Congress for over a year due to Republican lawmakers objecting to the estimated cost of $280 billion over ten years by the Congressional Budget Office. In her response to these objections she stated “Yes, it costs more money to provide medical care to more veterans. But I see this as part of the cost of sending men and women to war. If we’re gonna do that and have them risk their life, then you should cover their health care for anything service related, just like we would for if they were shot in combat. If they were attacked by an IED in combat, we would take care of them.”