SOURCE: Bergmann & Moore, Kelly Kennedy reporting, 1/21/2015
Bergmann & Moore compiles 13 years’ worth of DoD morbidity data
Morbidity burdens per 10,000 active-duty service members
|other neurological conditions||78||77||79||142||132||145||190||229||211||240||251|
Source: Bergmann & Moore compilation and analysis of Defense Department morbidity reports
Bergmann & Moore
The Supreme Court ruled today that service members and contractors who believe their health was affected by massive, open pits of burning garbage in Iraq and Afghanistan could sue KBR Inc., the businesses charged with operating those pits.
While it’s hard to know how those lawsuits will play out, it could mean that more information emerges about what the troops were exposed to and how it affected them.
Some of those service members lived just a mile from a pit at Balad Air Base that burned 240 tons of trash a day. A thick, black plume—large enough that pilots used it as a landmark while flying—carried smoke from burned Styrofoam used at the dining facility, broken computers and even vehicles deemed unworthy of rehabilitation, and the tons of plastic water bottles used for almost every ounce of water imbibed in the war zone.
Others worked in the pits, tossing in trash or monitoring from towers to ensure the flames did not spread outside the pit.
The Department of Veterans Affairs says the burn pits likely caused temporary, and not long-term irritation, and cited an Institute of Medicine report as stating there was insufficient evidence to show long-term problems. “Research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits at this time,” states VA’s website.
That’s not exactly what the IOM said: They said there was not enough good data taken by the Defense Department in Iraq to show anything at all. And one of the investigators, David Tollerud, an environmental health scientist at the University of Louisville and chairman of the study, told me when I worked at USA TODAY, “I think the long-term health questions still remain.”
He said research on health outcomes performed five to 10 years after exposure is probably too early to determine if heart and vascular problems or cancers are due to the burn pits. And some groups exposed to similar materials have seen problems: Firefighters have higher rates of heart and vascular problems. Research has linked firefighters and incinerator workers with brain, testicular, colon and prostate cancer.
Now it is five to 10 years later for some vets, and we’re seeing more people come forward with cancers they believe are connected to the burn pits, or with a constant nasal drip that doesn’t respond to allergy medications, or unable to walk up a flight of stairs without becoming winded–even though they ran marathons before they deployed.
The IOM said, in it’s 2011 report, that it would be important to keep watching these service members because of “the carcinogenic nature of many of the chemicals potentially associated with burn-pit emissions.”
Continuing the lawsuits may allow for exactly that: more data, more health evaluations and more answers.
While at USA TODAY, I looked at Defense Department morbidity reports. We found that cardiovascular issues for service members increased from 65,520 in 2001 to 91,013 in 2010. Looking at the latest numbers, they’ve slipped back down to 84,941 in 2013 as deployments slowed and after the majority of the burn pits were shut down after an outcry in Congress and new rules in the 2010 Defense Authorization Act.
The data showed neurological conditions increased from 9,688 to 32,667 in the same time period, and hit 34,873 in 2013.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease increased from 13,554 cases in 2001 to a high of 30,778 in 2009, before going back down to 20,412 in 2013. COPD usually appears in smokers and, in 92 percent of the cases, is diagnosed in people older than 45, according to the American Lung Association.
Brain, testicular and thyroid cancer numbers also went up, and continue to do so.
At Fort Campbell, Kentucky, military health workers became so concerned when an infantry unit returned from Iraq with several members unable to pass the run portion of a physical fitness test that the soldiers were sent to Vanderbilt University Medical Center for further testing. There, Robert Miller performed lung biopsies and determined that more than 50 of the soldiers have constrictive bronchiolitis, a rare disease that closes the smallest passageways of the lungs. Miller said the disease should have showed up on X-rays, but did not.
Rather than aggressively going after that research, the Army simply stopped sending troops to Miller, saying the biopsies were unnecessary. Miller said that’s troubling because, without the biopsies, it’s hard for veterans to prove they’re sick for disability benefits.
Another researcher, Anthony Szema, an assistant professor at Stony Brook School of Medicine who specializes in pulmonology and allergies, found that 14 percent of service members who went to Iraq or Afghanistan experienced shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing and chest tightness.
Szema’s research has shown that 14% of servicemembers who deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan had new-onset respiratory problems, including shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing and chest tightness.
Again, rather than pushing for more of this research, whistle blower Steven Coughlin, a former epidemiologist in the VA’s public health department, told Congress VA didn’t release any data that showed there might be problems.
Perhaps with some outside help, the veterans will be able to prove what they’ve suspected all along and get the health care and benefits they earned while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bergmann & Moore, LLC, is a national law firm dedicated to serving the needs of veterans in compensation claims before and against the Department of Veterans Affairs. The firm’s partners are former VA attorneys who are very familiar with the VA system. Bergmann & Moore handles all kinds of cases, but has a concentration in claims involving PTSD, military sexual trauma, Gulf War illness and complex medical issues, such as brain cancer or degenerative issues, veterans exposed to Agent Orange often face. For more information, to submit news or to sign up for an email version of this blog, contact Kelly Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org