The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan presented the military with many challenges not seen before in combat history. Everything from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to a nebulous enemy made fighting more difficult, but also created the potential for some adverse health effects troops of the past did not encounter. In an effort to better treat such conditions, the Veterans Affairs Department (VA) recently announced its intentions to conduct a lengthy study to investigate the unique impact serving in Iraq and Afghanistan had on the health of troops.

The study
The VA is interested in what impact exposure to open air burn pits and other environmental hazards had on the well-being of soldiers. In particular, researchers are focused on whether there is a link between serving in the two countries and an increased risk of certain cancers, respiratory diseases, circulatory problems and neurological conditions. The announcement is somewhat of a change in policy for the VA, which has said that there was no need for a study focused on veterans of the two wars because they were included in several other trials. However, the department says the findings could be important in providing benefits.

“VA believes such studies would be helpful in properly assessing affected veterans for compensation purposes as well as for medical evaluation, treatment and follow up,” the department announced. 

Big step forward
The announcement will likely be seen as a success for many veterans advocates who say the widespread use of burn pits, which were used to dispose of everything from hazardous materials to vehicles, had been causing significant health problems in veterans. In fact, earlier this year President Barack Obama signed a bill into law that instructed the VA to design a registry to track any soldier who spent time living around a burn pit, whether it was in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else abroad. 

“The new registry will enhance VA’s ability to monitor the effects of exposure and keep veterans informed about studies and treatments,” the VA wrote after the bill was signed into law.

A widespread issue
It’s hard to measure just how many soldiers may be at risk for health problems due to burn pits. According to the Oxford American, the pit at Balad Air Base (which was shut down in 2009), may have exposed as many as 25,000 servicemembers to potentially toxic fumes.