The Debate over Poison

by Daniel Shen ’23


Published Apr. 8th, 2022

House lawmakers on March 3rd passed sweeping military toxic exposure legislation which could grant new disability benefits for 23 illnesses linked to burn pit smoke. 

This legislation comes from the wars in the Middle East and the damage that the soldiers who fought there suffered. The fighting in the Middle East involved dangerous attacks using artillery and explosive objects. However, it also included the use of several types of toxic waste which were physiologically damaging to many soldiers who experienced them. To dispose of these toxins, they were burned. This caused different illnesses which have been linked back to dozens of different cancers and respiratory issues. As one veteran of the war, Katie Purswell, put it “I struggle to think of a single person that I deployed with that was not exposed to some form of toxin.”

The legislation also included clauses to benefit soldiers exposed to radiation during the cold war and those exposed to agent orange, a deforestation chemical, during the war in Vietnam. In addition to these, the legislature would require medical exams for all veterans with toxic exposure to be tested and screened. 

This legislation could affect close to 3.5 million veterans and drastically reduce the amount of damage from similar chemicals in the lives of soldiers with future exposures. But the bill comes at a heavy cost of an estimated $207 billion dollars that some senators find too high for the benefit. 

Many conservative lawmakers say that the scope of the bill is too minor to warrant such a high price. In opposition president, Biden gave his own opinion on the issue in his “State of the Union” speech.  The president called it “a sacred obligation to equip all those we send to war and care for them and their families when they come home.”

While moving through the house, the vote came out at a 256-174 vote for the bills passing. Only 34 conservative-leaning members opted to vote for the bill. While this gave the bill the majority, the divide caused a debate with many members about how the Republican tax cut from the Trump administration was passed so easily by republicans but such a bill for veterans is so difficult. 

Speaker of the house Pelosi said “Tax cuts for the rich. Cancer for our veterans.” 

In the end, the people will have to wait and see how the parties act to either support or deny the bill’s entry into full law. 

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