October 20, 2022

Report Recommends Refocusing Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry

A report published recently by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends a new direction for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, which was established to “ascertain and monitor” the health effects of service members’ exposures to airborne hazards from open-air burn pits while deployed in Southwest Asia. The National Academies committee charged with the latest assessment of the registry finds that the registry is unable to fulfill its intended purposes of supporting research on health effects associated with deployment exposures to airborne hazards and conducting population health surveillance of deployed veterans. The committee suggests redirecting registry resources to focus instead on providing communication between participants and the VA as well as improving healthcare access and quality for service members.

Data from the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry are “not appropriate for etiologic research of airborne hazards exposures and health outcomes,” the committee says. According to the report, any exposure registry to be used for etiologic research should have key characteristics, including a sufficient sample size, an exposure assessment and a health outcome assessment of adequate quality, and the identification of contributing factors that might affect the association. The committee explains that the VA’s registry lacks many characteristics that an exposure registry intended for this use should have and thus “is not capable of supporting etiologic research.” Even so, registry data could be used to identify veterans’ health concerns and inform a research agenda, says the committee.

The National Academies report recommends that the registry “serve as a roster of interested service members and veterans to provide a vehicle for them to express their concerns regarding exposure to burn pits and other airborne hazards and potential health outcomes.” One of the primary benefits of participating in the registry might be notifications about deployment exposures and health outcomes, the committee suggests. The registry could also contribute to clinical care by providing participants with access to healthcare services designed to address their exposure concerns. The report notes that this could include access to clinical subject matter experts.

Individuals interested in learning more about the committee’s assessment can access the full report from the National Academies website.