WASHINGTON — The Biden administration will announce a series of actions Thursday to help veterans who were exposed to burn pits and other contaminants while serving overseas, including making it easier for vets to prove that they were exposed and pushing to find links between exposure and potentially deadly diseases, administration officials said.
The open-air pits were common at U.S. military bases during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dangerous materials from electronics and vehicles to human waste were regularly doused in jet fuel and set ablaze, spewing toxic fumes and carcinogens into the air.
A senior administration official said the issue is personal to President Joe Biden. Biden has said he believes his son Beau died of cancer that was linked to exposure to burn pits during his deployment to Iraq.
"He volunteered to join the National Guard at age 32 because he thought he had an obligation to go," Biden said at a Service Employees International Union convention in 2019. "And because of exposure to burn pits, in my view, I can't prove it yet, he came back with stage 4 glioblastoma."
In August, the Department of Veterans Affairs began processing claims for veterans suffering from asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis based on exposure to the pits.
Now the VA will use the same model to examine whether burn pits and environmental hazards can be linked to other illnesses, including constrictive bronchiolitis, lung cancers and rare respiratory cancers, such as squamous cell carcinoma of the larynx or the trachea and salivary gland-type tumors of the trachea.
Biden has directed the VA to complete a review of the rare cancers and provide recommendations within 90 days about whether more diseases or conditions can be labeled as having possible service connections.
An administration official said the goal is to shorten the decision-making process for adding more conditions as being possibly linked to burn pit exposure so veterans can get the services and benefits they need.
The new Biden administration effort does not specifically include glioblastoma or other cancers not associated with the lungs, the throat and the respiratory system.
The Biden administration has already created registries to track veterans who believe they were exposed to burn pits and other carcinogens. An administration official said tens of thousands of veterans have registered.
In an exclusive interview before the new effort was announced, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the U.S. needs to do more for service members who have been exposed to burn pits since the start of the first Gulf War in 1991.
"I have said I consider it a failing of the United States government, until now, during those 30 years, that it's only now under President Biden that we've even begun to cover [some of those] conditions," he said. "The biggest challenge there is proving the scientific connection between those chemicals and that cancer. And I'm duty-bound by the law to have a firm connection there. So that's the biggest challenge."
He urged veterans to register to find possible clusters.
"What I'm saying is: Let's look at all these cases together," he said. "Let's find out everybody in the burn pit registry who were deployed together and use data science and analytics to inform this decision that we just talked about, the correlation.
"If it's a close call, we're going to resolve those in favor of the vet."
The administration also plans to conduct more outreach to veterans and service members preparing to transition, provide more training for VA health care providers and staff members and speed the development of the Individual Longitudinal Exposure Record, which is how the Pentagon and the VA track, record and assess exposure to potentially hazardous substances.
"We have veterans with terminal cancers who believe that these exposures in theater are responsible for their cancers," McDonough said. "I take it very personally that we resolve those questions with urgency, with due haste, because they don't have the luxury of time."