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Lawmakers back veterans exposed to burn pits

Many military veterans in West Virginia and around the country developed debilitating medical conditions after being exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. The government initially denied that the toxic herbicide had made them sick, and their conditions were not classified as presumptive diseases until almost 20 years after they returned home. A bipartisan group of lawmakers say legislation is needed to prevent the same thing happening to veterans who were exposed to toxic fumes released from open-air burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The military dug 250 open-air burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq to dispose of medical waste, industrial refuse, and garbage. Exposure to the fumes emitted by these pits has been linked to several cancers and a number of pulmonary conditions. In 2011, a study conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine referred to the Department of Defense's data on air quality and pollutants around the pits as scant or incomplete.

Two bills introduced by a Florida Republican and a California Democrat would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to study illnesses thought to be connected to burn pit exposure and classify them as presumptive diseases if a strong link is found. This would make veterans who have developed the conditions automatically eligible for disability and health benefits. No conditions are currently presumed by the VA to be related to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Military veterans who were injured or became sick in the line of duty may be entitled to Social Security Disability and VA benefits, but the application processes are complex and even minor paperwork errors can add to already long waiting periods. Attorneys familiar with veterans' issues could seek to ensure that their clients receive all of the benefits that they are entitled to.

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