Veterans’ exposure to toxic chemicals may harm their families’ health for generations, causing cancer, birth defects and other medical problems, according to U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal.
He is co-sponsoring legislation to require that veterans be informed of their exposure to toxic substances and to establish a research center focusing on the illnesses of exposed veterans’ descendants.
Blumenthal, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said that “the dimensions of the problem are unknown at this point” because no one has collected data on it. But, he added, “we know the toxic exposure is there. Science indicates it can cause genetic effects.” He cited brain and blood cancers as potential repercussions.
He said the legislation stems from “concerns that were expressed very dramatically and vehemently by veterans themselves” about their own exposure and the potential effects on their offspring. “Veterans don’t know if they’ve been exposed,” he said.
The proposed research center would collect data about the descendants’ medical conditions to determine any connection to the toxic exposure, the extent of the problem and to ensure appropriate treatment.
Military members have been exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, neurotoxins in the Gulf War, chemical weapons and toxins from burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other chemicals, such as those in tainted water at Camp Lejeune, the U. S. Marine Corps base in North Carolina.
Melvin E. Hewston, legislative chairman of the Connecticut Veterans of Foreign Wars, said that studies done decades ago relating to Agent Orange found diabetes and kidney disease in descendants of people who were exposed.
“It’s important that they keep watching this to find out how far down the line these things go,” he said.
The bill has been submitted in both the House and Senate. U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, a Democrat, and one of its authors, said Connecticut veterans have told her of their exposure to Agent Orange and toxic burn pits.
“We owe it to our service men and women and their families, who sacrificed so much for our country to find out the answers they deserve and make care and treatment for them, their children and their grandchildren a priority,” said Esty, of the Fifth District.
“When service members raise their right hand, they willingly risk life and limb to defend their country. However, few probably ever contemplate that this noble action would have serious and sometimes grave consequences for their children and grandchildren,” Blumenthal said.
“We as a nation have just as much of a responsibility to the families as to those who actually wear the uniform,” he said.
The proposed research center would be housed in one of the Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers.
U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., a co-sponsor of the bill and a medical doctor, said he worked as a surgeon at a VA hospital for more than 20 years. He said that he has “seen far too many patients who suffer from unexplained, service connected ailments,” which can be passed down to their children.
Blumenthal said at present, doctors don’t have the information needed to connect a child’s illness with a parent’s military service. “If a child has cancer and the dad was in the military, is that going to be linked to military service by the doctor?” he asked.