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Rare respiratory cancers linked to burn pits added to VA’s list of military-service disabilities


The Department of Veterans Affairs will add nine rare respiratory cancers to its list of presumptive military service-connected disabilities for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits, President Biden said Monday.

Mr. Biden promised to make it a top priority to address the health issues stemming from the military’s use of burn pits to dispose of everything from metals to plastics to food, tires, batteries and medical and human waste.

“Today, the Department of Veterans Affairs is delivering on that promise and upholding that sacred obligation to the women and men who have worn the uniform of our country,” he said in a statement. “This new action is guided by science and driven by a desire to ensure that our nation’s veterans receive timely access to the benefits and services that they deserve.”

Veterans, survivors, or dependents who had filed claims based on those cancers but were denied can now file a new claim for benefits.

Mr. Biden also urged Congress to pass legislation that will help veterans exposed to toxic burn pits, vowing to “sign it immediately.”

The VA said it determined that the nine cancers should be added after a review found “biological plausibility” between airborne toxins and respiratory cancers.

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“The unique circumstances of these rare cancers warrant a presumption of service connection,” the department said in a statement.

The respiratory cancers now listed as service-connected disabilities include squamous cell carcinoma of the larynx, squamous cell carcinoma of the trachea, adenocarcinoma of the trachea, salivary gland-type tumors of the trachea, adenosquamous carcinoma of the lung, large cell carcinoma of the lung, salivary gland-type tumors of the lung, sarcomatoid carcinoma of the lung and typical and atypical carcinoid of the lung.

The list will be published Tuesday in the Federal Register through an interim final rule.

Last year, the VA added asthma, rhinitis, and sinusitis as presumptive conditions linked to burn pits.

Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, called the move a strong first step but urged the VA to add more illnesses that have been linked to burn pits. 

“The VA’s decision is long overdue, but countless veterans will remain without the care they deserve. Our nation’s veterans are suffering from debilitating illnesses and dying because they cannot get the care they earned. No more half measures. No more bureaucratic studies. No more excuses. The Senate needs to pass legislation with comprehensive presumptive benefits for our veterans, now,” Mr. Rubio said in a statement.

Mr. Biden in recent months has become vocal on the issue of airborne toxins from burn pits. He highlighted the issue in his State of the Union address and, in November, he ordered the Department of Veterans Affairs to explore the link between burn pits and certain medical conditions.

Burn pits were used by the U.S. military in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo to dispose of waste.

Toxins emitted from the burn pits can affect the skin, eyes, respiratory and cardiovascular systems, and gastrointestinal tract. Immediate exposure includes eye and throat irritation, coughing, difficulty breathing, skin itching and rashes.

Mr. Biden has suggested that the chemicals from the pits where waste was incinerated in Iraq led to the brain-cancer death of his son Beau in 2015 at the age of 46. The younger Biden, a major in the Delaware Army National Guard unit, served in Iraq and Kosovo.

It is difficult to link toxic exposure to individual medical conditions. Still, the Veteran Affairs’ website says hazardous materials exposure increases risks and dangers for veterans.

The House last month approved a bill that ramps up spending on health care services and disability payments for veterans who had been exposed to burn pits. All told, it would increase spending on veterans’ health by more than $300 billion.

The Senate Committee for Veterans Affairs is now debating the bill.

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