Rep. Tulsi Gabbard Cosponsors Bill to Help Veterans Exposed to Cancer-Causing Toxins
July 31, 2020
Washington, DC— Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (HI-02) cosponsored H.R.5957, the K2 Veterans Toxic Exposure Accountability Act, a bipartisan bill that would direct the Secretary of Defense to access servicemembers’ toxic exposure for those deployed to Karshi Khanabad Air Base (K2) in Uzbekistan from 2001 to 2005. It also requires the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to maintain a registry of those servicemembers who experienced toxic exposure while deployed to K2.
“From Agent Orange, to the toxic burn pits in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, to the toxins servicemembers deployed to K2 in Uzbekistan were exposed to, our government must care for our veterans and servicemembers who are suffering and dying as a direct result of toxic exposure during their deployments,” said Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. “The DOD and VA must acknowledge and document their service-connected toxic exposure, the health consequences they suffer as a result,and ensure our servicemembers and veterans can get the treatment they have earned through their great service and sacrifice.”
Background: More than 7,000 military personnel worked at Karshi Khanabad Air Base, or K2, in Uzbekistan between 2001 and 2005. Reporting has brought to light studies that showed K2 veterans were five times more likely to develop some cancers than those who deployed elsewhere, as well as reports of chemical and radiation exposure.
The Department of Veterans Affairs notes that veterans and service members who were deployed to K2 may have been exposed to several hazardous materials, including jet fuel, volatile organic compounds, articulate matter and dust, depleted uranium, asbestos and lead-based paint.
Documents have revealed evidence that the Department of Defense knew at the time that service members were exposed to voluminous health risks including cancer-risking toxins. Yet thus far, there has been little recognition of the harms this exposure may have caused, and the VA has continued to deny care to these veterans.
Only earlier this year did the VA notify Congress of its intent to study the health impact of toxic exposure on service members who served at K2.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has consistently fought to improve healthcare outcomes for veterans and service members. Last year, along with Congresswoman Aumua Amata (AS-at large), Congressman Michael San Nicolas (GU-at large), Rep. Don Young (AK-at large), and Rep. Ed Case (HI-01), she introduced the Compact of Free Association (COFA) Veterans Review Act. The legislation would help better address the healthcare needs of veterans from the Freely Associated States (FAS) which include Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia which are part of the COFA agreement with the U.S.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has also been a leader in Congress calling for the Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs to acknowledge and support service members and veterans who experienced toxic exposure during their deployment. She has fought to expand benefits for Vietnam veterans suffering from Agent Orange-linked diseases.
In June, she introduced H.R.7072, the SFC Heath Robinson Burn Pit Transparency Act, with Rep. Brian Mast (FL-18). Senator Sherrod Brown (OH), a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee leading on burn pits issues, introduced the bipartisan companion bill in the Senate with Senator Rob Portman (OH). This bill would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to notify Congress and document, track, and report all cases of burn pit exposure reported by veterans to the VA.
Based on deployment numbers since 1990, it is likely that over a million servicemembers and veterans should be included in the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry. Between April 25, 2014 and April 28, 2020, 203,525 veterans and service members completed and submitted the registry questionnaire. Exposure can produce serious and potentially life-threatening health effects, including neurological disorders, rare forms of cancer, lung diseases, and more — triggering some to call the crisis the ‘Agent Orange’ of the post-9/11 generation.
The SFC Heath Robinson Burn Pit Transparency Act builds on previous legislation, H.R.663, the Burn Pits Accountability Act, which requires that all DoD members are accounted for in the burn pits registry. The Burn Pits Accountability Act — a bipartisan, bicameral bill introduced in the House by Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (HI-02) and Brian Mast (FL-18) that has over 205 cosponsors and the support of more than two dozen servicemember organizations — was incorporated into the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2020. Senator Sherrod Brown helped lead the effort to advance the Burn Pits Accountability Act in the Senate and helped ensure its inclusion in the House-Senate conference report. The final version of the 2020 NDAA included the Burn Pits Accountability Act and was passed in December 2019 and subsequently signed into law by the President.
However, currently the registry is voluntary for veterans and many are unaware of it and the important role it plays. The Burn Pits Transparency Act will close that gap by ensuring all veterans that discuss burn pit exposure with their VA healthcare provider are aware of the registry and their opportunity to be included.
If passed, the SFC Heath Robinson Burn Pits Transparency Act will improve data tracking and accountability as well as provide additional information necessary to logically identify and determine causation between burn pit exposure and reported chronic diseases. In doing so, Congress will be able provide the needed resources to care for our servicemembers and veterans exposed to burn pits and oversee the departments and agencies responsible for delivering that support and care. The bill is another step forward in an effort to prevent a situation akin to Agent Orange, where veterans complained of exposure as the cause of their medical problems, but the correlation was not acknowledged until years later.
The Burn Pits Accountability Act (passed as part of the 2020 NDAA) requires the Secretary of Defense to record whether servicemembers have been based or stationed at a location where an open burn pit was used or exposed to toxic airborne chemicals, including any information recorded as part of the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, in the Periodic Health Assessment (PHAs), Separation History and Physical Examination (SHPEs), and Post-Deployment Health Assessment (PDHAs). It enrolls any servicemember who meets these criteria in the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, unless he or she opts-out. And, it would require the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to share information relating to exposure of burn pits and toxic airborne chemicals recorded in PHAs, SHPEs, and PDHAs.
About Rep. Tulsi Gabbard: Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard is serving her fourth term in the United States House representing Hawai‘i’s Second District, and serves on the House Armed Services and Financial Services Committees. She previously served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Homeland Security Committee. She was elected to the Honolulu City Council in 2010, and prior to that at age 21, was elected to the Hawaiʻi State Legislature in 2002, becoming the youngest person ever elected in the state. Tulsi Gabbard has served in the Hawaiʻi Army National Guard for over 17 years, is a veteran of two Middle East deployments, and continues to serve as a Major. Learn more about Rep. Tulsi Gabbard...
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