News5 Investigates: Vets and contractors believed to be sickened - KOAA.com | Continuous News | Colorado Springs and Pueblo

News5 Investigates: Vets and contractors believed to be sickened by war time burn pits

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Photo: Department of Veterans Affairs Photo: Department of Veterans Affairs

A News5 investigation into so-called burn pits looks into how toxic fumes our service members and civilian contractors were exposed to in war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq on a daily basis are now believed to be causing serious health problems.

As thousands of veterans came home from war, doctors started noticing a common health problem, they reported having a cough and/or trouble breathing. Some cases developed into rare lung diseases, and few even ended in death.  But just as more vets and civilians are being diagnosed as having respiratory problems, Congress cut funding for more research on burn pit exposures for 2016.

The burn pits were used to destroy all types of waste during wars in the Middle East, burning everything from trash and food waste, to vehicle parts, ammunition, tires, batteries, medical waste, animal carcasses, chemicals, plastic and in some cases even body parts.

The Department of Veterans Affairs said one of the challenges in understanding the risks of burn pits is that each one could contain varying kinds of waste and that could differ on a day-to-day basis.

"We have no idea what these veterans were exposed to day to day," said Daniel Warvi, Public Affairs Officer, VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System.

Veronica Landry, who was a contractor in Iraq roughly 10 years ago, worked for the company that was contracted to run many of the Department of Defense's burn pits, KBR. She said the burn pits were close to living quarters and exercise areas, and sometimes they were instructed to take cover in bunkers because ammunition would ignite and explode in the burn pit.

"Pretty much every day we were exposed to it," said Landry.

There are believed to have been dozens of burn pits in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Qatar and a few other locations. Army veteran Richard Vanhorn said after three tours stretching all over the Middle East, he was exposed to many burn pits and likely toxic fumes.

He started noticing trouble before he was even out of the Army.

"I just felt myself get more out of breath, I would struggle a lot more," said Vanhorn.

At 29 years old, Vanhorn was diagnosed with Deployment Related Lung Disease and emphysema. 

"You feel kind of expendable," Vanhorn said.

Vanhorn is now part of several studies at National Jewish Health in Denver, as experts there try to pinpoint exactly what's plaguing service members' lungs.  

Landry, who recently had a lung biopsy done, is also seeking treatment at National Jewish Health. She was recently diagnosed with a debilitating disorder called Bronchiolitis.

"Right at 10 years later I ended up in the hospital twice with my lungs completely failing me, I mean I couldn't breathe," she said.

Veronica was healthy, a cyclist and never smoked. Now in her early 40's, she has an oxygen tank at home.

"Never thought this would be me," she said.

In 2011, Dr. Cecile Rose at National Jewish Health teamed up with other researchers to begin trying to understand why vets and contractors were suffering these seemingly mysterious and debilitating respiratory disorders. They received a $500,000 grant from the Department of Defense that same year to begin their work.

"It is alarming when people who are young and healthy... coming back with these symptoms that are disabling," said Rose, Professor of Pulmonary and Occupational Medicine.

The numbers are alarming too. After a directive from Congress in 2013, the Department of Veterans Affairs started a Burn Pit Registry, which went online in 2014. Since then, more than 27,000 vets report being exposed to burn pits and of those, 30 percent said they've been diagnosed with respiratory diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Warvi said he encourages any service member who spent time in Iraq or Afghanistan to fill out the forms in the registry, because the registry is a helpful tool in not only understanding what vets were exposed to, but knowing what kind of medical care they will need.

"So we could start collecting this information and making sure we can take of our veterans' health," said Warvi.

National Jewish Health in Denver is proving to be the top place in the country to receive treatment and conduct research. Dr. Rose said she's already seen well over 100 patients and her team expects those numbers will grow immensely in the next few years as word gets out about these lung disorders linked to deployment.

"We've had them undergo fairly complete testing and we have found that they really do have significant abnormalities,"said Rose. "We're hoping that some of our research and some of data collection will help us do some targeted prevention."

She said she and her team are anxious to work with the Department of Defense on prevention, the most obvious answer would be to have incinerators and stricter guidelines.  She's also studying the effects of dust exposure and other airborne hazards service members were breathing in while deployed.

While research into burn pit exposure is relatively new, really ramping up two years ago, it also suffered a major blow this year.  Congress failed to fund peer reviewed medical research of burn pits for the upcoming year, leaving it off of the Congressional Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP) for 2016.

"I wish I knew more about why it was not included this year," Colorado Congressman Doug Lamborn said. "I know that Congress has funded some of the studies in the past." 

Lamborn does not serve on the House Appropriations Committee that makes those decisions, and said the burn pit issue is something he needs to learn more about.  

But for vets and contractors, the fact that burn pit exposures was cut does not ease their concerns.

"This could not be a worse time to take funding off the table for research on that program," said Landry.

Dr. Rose said with or without inclusion on the CDMRP, the research will continue at National Jewish Health with the VA and with private money.

"So far there isn't a lot of information yet, but I'm extremely optimistic that the (Burn Pit) Registry is going to help us pinpoint the problem or at least pin point the people who we need to be inviting into our center," she said.

The VA is set to launch a Denver based research project on Airborne Hazards soon, and Warvi said the VA is also expanding its Chest Exposure Clinic, run with the National Jewish Health.

As for Colorado's members of Congress, Spokesman for Senator Michael Bennet, Phillip Clelland wrote in a statement:

"It's important that we understand whether Soldiers from Fort Carson-or any service members- are suffering because of burn pit exposure. We need to know more about the risks and potential effects that exposure may cause. We're looking into why it wasn't included in the 2016 list, and we will continue working with our colleagues to determine the best strategy to fully understand the issue."

News5 also reached out to Senator Cory Gardner's office for comment, but did not receive a response to calls and emails by the time this article was published.

In full disclosure, Landry is a former employee of KOAA and had to step down from her role as morning executive producer due to these respiratory complications and disorder. Landry is also involved in a class action lawsuit against KBR.

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