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The Department of Veterans Affairs keeps something called a Burn Pit Registry. This is a voluntary questionnaire filled out by vets who may have been exposed to burning trash and toxic waste on military bases. Many of them have breathing problems now, but researchers noticed something else may be contributing. Most of these vets were near explosions. Here's NPR's Quil Lawrence.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Burn pits are controversial because so far VA doesn't recognize a clear link between breathing problems and troops who live near the noxious smoke during deployment. That's not what this new study is about.
DREW HELMER: There may be more to this story than just burn pit smoke exposure.
LAWRENCE: Dr. Drew Helmer directs the VA's War Related Illness and Injury Studies Center. Scientists there were looking at the Burn Pit Registry when they noticed that three quarters of those vets reported having been close enough to explosions to feel the blast. Now, plenty of troops who hit roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan had obvious lung injuries, but Helmer says hundreds of thousands more might have milder effects.
HELMER: We were thinking, well, if you can have an acute lung injury with a big blast, perhaps if you have a smaller blast exposure, you may have some degree of lung injury but it may not be enough to get the immediate attention of folks.
LAWRENCE: That is to say maybe the shortness of breath and loss of stamina for exercise could come later and last years. Despite its name, the Burn Pit Registry isn't just about burn pits. Anyone who went to Iraq or Afghanistan can sign up. And researchers noticed that many of the vets on the registry were never exposed to the burn pits. But among those with symptoms, 79 percent had felt the concussive wave of a bomb blast at some point.
HELMER: This is actually the first report in a human sample that shows a possibility of an association between a past, a prior blast, and current symptoms. And so that's what makes it both really interesting and possibly, you know, a little controversial.
LAWRENCE: Controversial for scientists because it's new. Controversial for veterans because many are angry that the VA won't classify their breathing problems as connected to their service and burn pit exposure. That has consequences for their health care and their benefits. Dozens of them are part of a class-action lawsuit against the contractors that set up the burn pits. It's now on appeal to the Fourth Circuit. But this study could imply that many thousands more veterans have service-connected wounds from blast exposure, and it might change the way the military treats blast victims, even those who don't have obvious injuries. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.