Thousands of current and former members of the Vermont National
Guard may have been exposed to toxic smoke from burn pits during overseas deployments in the past 30 years, but only a small percentage appear to be aware of the health risks posed by such exposure.
Vermont legislators want to change that by increasing awareness
among service members and health care professionals about what Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) called a “ticking time bomb in public health.”
Of the estimated 10,000 Vermont guardsmen who have served in overseas theaters where burn pits were used by U.S. forces, just 366 have signed up for a registry aimed at sharing information with service members who may have been exposed.
That tells Ashe that “something hasn’t quite clicked yet in a pervasive way among returning service members” about the need to sign up for what is known as the federal Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry.
“A lot of people aren’t even aware of the registry and, certainly, I don’t think the general public is informed about this issue,” Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham) said Wednesday.
They and several other senators have introduced a bill requiring the Department of Health to develop educational material about
the symptoms associated with exposure to such pits by July 1, 2019.
Burn pits are a common way for soldiers, particularly in combat zones, to dispose of a variety of waste — including chemicals, paint, medical and human waste, munitions, petroleum products, plastics, and food — according to the bill.
While Ashe said there is a “growing awareness” of the problem, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs provides “contradictory information” about exposure to such pits, according to the bill.
On the one hand, the VA claims that “research does not show evidence of long-term health problems” associated with burn pits. On the other, the VA provides a litany of health warnings about exposure to the toxic smoke from burn pits, including effects on the “skin, eyes, respiratory and cardiovascular systems, gastrointestinal tract and internal organs,” according to the bill.
White said a constituent raised concerns to her about the issue late last year.
While she didn’t identify the individual, retired brigadier general Michael Heston, the second in command at the Vermont Guard, died in November of an aggressive form of cancer his family believed was linked to burn pits.
The 58-year-old died of pancreatic cancer that his doctor concluded was not genetic but instead due to environmental factors. Heston’s wife, June, told local media her husband began having back pain in 2016, about four years after his last deployment to Afghanistan.
Ashe said he's spoken to Gov. Phil Scott about the bill and expects it to be an issue the legislature and the Scott's office will agree on.
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy here: sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.