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VA Airborne Hazards Research Gearing Up

The potential for deployment-related occupational and environmental exposures to cause health problems has been a subject of study for the VA since the Vietnam War, when the agency created a registry for veterans who had been exposed to the chemical herbicide known as Agent Orange. A similar registry was created for veterans of the first Gulf War – and in the past year, one has been formed for post-9/11 veterans.

VA will be conducting a pilot epidemiologic research study to characterize the impact of deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan on the respiratory health of veterans. More specifically, this study plans to: (a) determine the most efficient and feasible method for recruiting veterans; (b) understand demographic, health-related, and military service-related factors influencing participation to inform analytic strategies; and (c) demonstrate that a method for reconstructing individual exposures based on deployment history can be done. The intent is to help better inform the planning, conduct, and analysis of a potential larger, national study for assessing the residual effects of exposure to high levels of particulate matter while deployed.

After reviewing the IOM report, then-Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki directed the Veterans Health Administration to conduct a long-term prospective study on all adverse health effects that might be related to deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, including health effects potentially related to exposure to airborne hazards and burn pits.

A study by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), undertaken at the request of the VA and made public in 2011, was inconclusive. In a notice published in the Federal Register in February of 2013, the VA characterized the IOM report in this way:

IOM concluded that there was limited but suggestive evidence of an association between exposure to combustion products and reduced pulmonary function, but inadequate or insufficient evidence of an association between exposure to combustion products and cancer, respiratory diseases, circulatory diseases, neurologic diseases, and adverse reproductive and developmental outcomes in the populations studied.

After reviewing the IOM report, then-Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki directed the Veterans Health Administration to conduct a long-term prospective study on all adverse health effects that might be related to deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, including health effects potentially related to exposure to airborne hazards and burn pits.

On a different front, the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry is available to all eligible veterans. Veterans and service members can use the registry questionnaire to report exposures to airborne hazards (such as smoke from burn pits, oil-well fires, or pollution during deployment), as well as other exposures and health concerns. The registry will help to monitor health conditions and VA will use the data to improve programs to help veterans and service members with deployment exposure concerns.

Service members and veterans can access the registry and sign up at https://veteran.mobilehealth.va.gov/AHBurnPitRegistry/#page/home

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...