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Veterans’ Toxic Exposure and its Connection to Rare Diseases

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Veterans’ Toxic Exposure and its Connection to Rare Diseases

Military service can take its toll on our veterans. While it’s common for our veterans to suffer long-lasting injuries due to everyday actions during their time in the military, many veterans also deal with uncommon medical conditions that derive from exposure to toxic chemicals and compounds.

Exposure to toxic substances is an often overlooked part of military service. This can stem from their exposure to chemical weapons, usage of chemicals in their living or work environments, or other hazardous circumstances. Far too often, such exposure leads to the development of chronic health conditions and diseases that can be severely detrimental to the health and quality of life of the veterans that are exposed.

This article will detail the veterans’ toxic exposure and its connection to rare diseases as well as what benefits and protections are provided to veterans who were exposed.

The Threat of Toxic Exposure

Concerns of toxic exposure have gained renewed interest among veterans in part because of a recent rollout of medical screenings by the VA focused explicitly on military service-related toxic exposure. 

The screenings of more than 1 million veterans have seen about 400,000 veterans report potential health concerns related to toxic exposure. A 40% rate of possible toxic exposure underlines the scope of the issue as it’s currently estimated that around 3.5 million veterans have been exposed to toxic contaminants during their service.

While the VA has recently announced that more widespread conditions such as asthma, rhinitis, and sinusitis would be recognized as having links to toxic exposure and therefore be afforded VA protections, there is still the matter of more severe and rare conditions that stem from service-related toxic exposure. 

Veterans’ Toxic Exposure and its Connection to Rare Diseases

Conditions associated with toxic exposure can show symptoms immediately or take years to develop while going unnoticed. Either way, the health threats that come from some of the more severe conditions afflicting many veterans cannot be understated.

Moreover, because veterans are at increased risk of toxic exposure when compared to their civilian counterparts, it’s important to understand why that is the case. Toxic exposure can occur in combat zones or right at home on a military base. While many veterans work with potentially hazardous chemicals, some will be exposed to toxic substances without any relation to their duties due to contamination or leaks in the water, air, or soil.

The most common types of military toxic exposure include but are not limited to:

  • Chemical exposure
  • Warfare agents/chemical weapons
  • Air pollutants 
  • Occupational hazards
  • Radiation

Some veterans may be exposed to more than one of these. 

As of present, there are multiple instances recognized by the VA through which veterans may have been exposed to toxic substances and these include:

  • Agent Orange: Agent Orange refers to a toxic chemical that saw significant use during the Vietnam War era. Exposure to this highly toxic compound is linked with various cancers including prostate cancer, multiple myeloma, and non-Hodgkins lymphoma as well as many other severe illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and hypothyroidism.
  • Toxic drinking water at Camp Lejeune: Those who spend time at the Marine cops base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina likely came into contact with contaminated drinking water which has been shown to develop serious illnesses such as leukemia, bladder, kidney, and liver cancer, multiple myeloma, and Parkinson’s disease
  • Ionizing radiation: Veterans exposed to ionizing radiation during their service are at increased risk of all cancer types including but not limited to bone, brain, colon, and breast cancer as well as leukemia, lymphomas, and multiple myeloma (cancer of plasma cells)
  • Depleted uranium follow-up: Depleted uranium (DU) was used on a large scale during the Gulf War as tank armor and also in some bullets due to its density. While much of the radioactivity was “depleted”, it still retained the same chemical toxicity as undepleted uranium which veterans may have been exposed to if they were near DU-outfitted vehicles hit with projectiles, entered burning buildings or vehicles with DU, or near fires involving DU munitions. DU follow-up has been linked with kidney disease as well as low bone mineral density.
  • Toxic embedded fragments: Shrapnel from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), bombs, mines, and shells are known to carry hazardous chemicals including DU. When these foreign objects enter and/or remain in the body, they can create health concerns. Currently, health problems caused by toxic embedded fragments are not fully understood.
  • Gulf War Illness: Veterans who served in the Gulf War were commonly exposed to various chemical and environmental hazards such as oil well fires, burn pits, and other hazardous smoke and airborne pollutants. Exposure to these chemicals during the Gulf War is linked with severe conditions such as fibromyalgia, and respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases. 
  • Asbestos: Asbestos is toxic fibers that were once used in many buildings as insulation. Some veterans worked in jobs that routinely exposed them to asbestos and many may have simply worked in buildings that were insulated with asbestos before it was removed. Asbestos is linked with cancers and other respiratory diseases such as mesothelioma. 
  • Job-related hazards: Some veterans worked with compounds as a part of their normal duties and could have received toxic exposure from chemicals, paint, radiation, or other hazards.

While many veterans were exposed as a direct result of their jobs or duties, many will face exposure simply by being in an area that was contaminated such as those working in buildings with asbestos or those who were stationed or worked at installation with contaminated water or near centers for airborne pollutants such as Camp Lejeune and Fort McClellan respectively. 

Regardless of how they were exposed, toxic exposure proves to be hazardous to the long-term health of those exposed.

What Protections Are Available for Veterans?

Fortunately, the VA has in recent years expanded its protections for veterans who have been exposed to toxic substances. The recently passed PACT Act added provisions to protect Gulf War and Vietnam War veterans as well as those exposed to radiation and contaminated water at Camp Lejeune.

Under the PACT Act, veterans are entitled to VA healthcare and compensation benefits for those affected based on their service and conditions.

  • Gulf War veterans: If a veteran has the necessary service for VA to acknowledge exposure to particulate matter and if they exhibit any of the listed illnesses after their necessary service, they will be eligible for VA healthcare and reimbursement benefits.
  • Vietnam War veterans: Veterans will be eligible for VA health care and reimbursement benefits if they have completed the necessary duty for VA to acknowledge their exposure to herbicides (such as Agent Orange) and if they later developed any of the listed illnesses.
  • Radiation-exposed veterans: By including on-site involvement in radiation-risk activities, the PACT Act increased the number of soldiers who are qualified for a presumptive service connection for ailments that developed as a result of radiation exposure.
  • Camp Lejeune Contaminated Water: Veterans with certain medical conditions, such as kidney cancer, liver cancer, Non-lymphoma, Hodgkin’s adult leukemia, multiple myeloma, Parkinson’s disease, bladder cancer, aplastic anemia, and other myelodysplastic syndromes, who served at least 30 days of active duty at Camp Lejeune or Marine Corps Air Station New River in North Carolina between August 1953 and December 1987 are eligible for health care and compensation benefits from the VA.

It’s important to note that to receive VA benefits associated with toxic exposure veterans must still undergo the VA claims process to verify their condition(s) and that the exposure was service related according to their military records.

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