This is Part 3 of a multi-part 12 on 12 Digital Original : A Burning Controversy
(WPRI) — During the Vietnam War, from 1962 to 1975, the Department of Veterans Affairs said millions of gallons of Agent Orange, and other tactical herbicides, were sprayed on trees and vegetation.
But, it wasn’t until several decades later that exposure to those herbicides was linked with serious diseases in our veterans, including cancer, heart disease, and Parkinson’s.
Now, ongoing research suggests the possibility of a similar threat overseas – burn pits.
“This has the potential makings of the modern-day Agent Orange,” Kasim Yarn, the director of the Rhode Island Office of Veteran Affairs, told Eyewitness News in a sit-down interview earlier this month.
“We are on someone else’s soil, and we must treat it as if it’s our own,” Yarn explained. “But also, as part of our business, we have to do our job and get rid of the waste in an effective manner. Historically, burn pits have provided that option.”
As a co-founder of the Hunter Seven Foundation, a volunteer research group based in Providence, Chelsey Poisson has dedicated her spare time to studying a possible link between toxic exposure overseas and serious health effects in members of our military.
“If we are going to be at war, we need to find a way to dispose of waste,” Poisson, a registered nurse, said.
Poisson argues if the burning isn’t going to stop, there needs to be a better way to treat our troops when they return home.
“We screen for all these things – like diabetes, high blood pressure. Why can’t we screen for toxic exposure?” Poisson asked.
Poisson said screening should start at the moment someone begins talking with their health care provider, and it should begin with a simple question: “Are you a service member or a veteran?” During her last rotation as a nurse at Miriam Hospital’s Emergency Department, Poisson said that one question could have completely changed how she looked at a patient’s care.
Poisson added it’s especially important to find out whether someone has served overseas during a normal checkup because she said data and statistics from the VA show not every vet utilizes VA services.
“Out of 100 percent of the Iraq Afghanistan veterans, only 23 percent utilize VA services. Where is the other 77 percent? How are they being properly cared for and properly screened?” Poisson asked.
In an attempt to tackle the issue, the Hunter Seven Foundation created its own algorithm for screening soldiers. Poisson said they hope to have it implemented in civilian-care facilities throughout the country.
“First, it’s based on a veteran’s age. So, my fiance is 31 years old. He goes into the hospital. I’m the nurse. I ask, ‘Are you a veteran?’ He says ‘Yes.’ Obviously, the drop-down menu won’t say Vietnam or World War II because he’s not old enough,” Poisson explained.
She added, “[the program] is only going to give me the wars he’s eligible for. Then you’ll click the time period, because we tracked the highest rate of exposure in combat in those areas. You’ll click the years he was deployed, and then it will give you a drop-down list of symptoms.”
Poisson said she believes answering these kinds of question, and starting this type of dialogue, could help determine follow-up screening methods and testing for a specific population’s risk factors.
Lt. Col. Sheri Boucher, of the Hunter Seven Foundation, said this is especially critical for veterans who may not know they’ve been exposed.
“I was a little shocked of how few people knew they had been exposed,” Boucher said. “I think there’s an assumption that because they were there, they knew about the exposure.”
Lt. Col. Boucher has 28 years of military experience, primarily as a flight nurse with the U.S. Air Force. She argues preventative medicine is a lot cheaper than treatment, which is why the Hunter Seven Foundation is looking to members of Congress to support the program it’s created.
“It’s going to cost the government nothing. We already created the software to establish a protocol to screen for veteran healthcare based on the symptoms,” Poisson said.
If you are a service member and have health concerns related to burn pits register in the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs Burn Pit Registry
If you’d like to share a story related to this issue, contact WPRI 12 Eyewitness News reporter Caroline Goggin at firstname.lastname@example.org.