March 19, 2009

Senators Bayh, Dorgan, Wyden IntroduceLegislation to Care for Soldiers Exposed to Toxins

Washington Senators Evan Bayh (D-IN), Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) today introduced legislation to improve medical care for U.S. soldiers exposed to toxic chemicals during wartime military service.

In 2003, National Guard soldiers from Indiana, Oregon, West Virginia and South Carolina guarding the Qarmat Ali water treatment facility in Iraq were exposed to sodium dichromate, a deadly carcinogen.

The legislation proposed by Senators Bayh, Dorgan and Wyden, the Health Care for Members of the Armed Forces Exposed to Chemical Hazards Act of 2009, would guarantee lifelong care at Veterans Administration (VA) medical facilities for service members who have been exposed to occupational and environmental hazards while deployed. Their proposed VA medical registry is modeled after the government's response to the Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War.

"This bill recognizes our responsibility to remove needless obstacles to care for American troops exposed to harmful toxins during wartime service," Senator Bayh said. "We should be guided by our government's response to Agent Orange in Vietnam, when we shifted the evidentiary burden so veterans placed at risk did not bear the burden of proof if future health conditions developed."

"We need to make sure soldiers exposed to this deadly chemical are, first, notified that they've been exposed, and second, that they get the screening, counseling and medical treatment they need. The legislation we are introducing today would establish a registry of those exposed, that would allow us to do that, both today and in the years to come," said Senator Dorgan, who chaired the Democratic Policy Committee hearings that revealed soldiers from several states were exposed, without warning or protective equipment to the deadly chemical.

"This bill corrects a major flaw in how we take care of the troops," said Senator Wyden. "It would ensure that our troops are told when they have been exposed to harmful chemicals and that they can use VA services if they do get sick. Our government will truly be making good on its obligation to take care of them both on the battlefield and when they get back home."

Original cosponsors of the legislation are Senators Bayh, Dorgan, Wyden, Robert Byrd (D-WV), and Richard Lugar (R-IN). The legislation was originally introduced by Senator Bayh as an amendment to last year's National Defense Authorization Act. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, then Senators, were both cosponsors.

The legislation would establish a registry making at-risk veterans eligible for a series of medical examinations and laboratory tests. It would also authorize scientific reviews of the evidence linking exposure to adverse health effects. Under this approach, a veteran's own report of exposure would constitute sufficient proof necessary to receive medical care, barring evidence to the contrary.

The environmental health threats that the Guardsmen faced at Qarmat Ali are not unique. In July 2005, a senior Department of Defense official testified before the House Committee on Government Reform about numerous incidents involving potentially hazardous materials. These included incidents at Al Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center in Iraq, with possible excessive exposure levels of ionizing radiation; Al-Samawah in Iraq, with depleted uranium and exposure to toxic chemicals; Ash Shuaiba Port in Kuwait, with industrial pollution at a large port; Camp War Eagle in Iraq, with possible airborne lead exposures; Baghdad, with possible exposure to sarin; Kharsi Khanabad in Uzbekistan, with suspected environmental radiological and chemical agent contamination; and, Al Mishraq Sulfur Plant in Iraq, with airborne combustion products from a sulfur fire.