A veterans advocacy group is calling for the Veterans Affairs Department to grant a presumption of service connection for 13 illnesses recognized in victims and first responders of the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks.

Burn Pits 360, a group that represents former service members who developed chronic illnesses after serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, argues that chemicals released during the 9/11 terrorist assault in New York City are the same as those encountered by troops exposed to open-air burn pits and other environmental toxins in the Middle East.

The group argues that the Defense Department and VA should provide the same specialized health care and compensation to sick combat troops as the World Trade Center Health Program and Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund do for 9/11 veterans.

"We are asking DoD and VA to acknowledge the pulmonary disease, cancers, and other illnesses identified through lung biopsy and symptoms reported by those exposed to deployment-related toxic chemicals," Burn Pits 360 executive director Rosie Torres wrote in a letter to the Pentagon, VA and the Institute of Medicine in October.

DoD and VA need to develop a list of presumptive illnesses and centers of excellence, conduct research and update the national registry to include death entries, she added.

More than 45,000 veterans have joined the VA Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, a VA-sponsored, voluntary inventory of veterans who want to be counted as having been exposed to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.

More than 28,000 veterans in the registry report higher rates of respiratory illnesses like asthma and emphysema, and some have been diagnosed with rare lung disorders.

Veterans also say they have developed cancer and other illnesses related to working at or living near open-air trash pits or being exposed to environmental toxins such as chemical munitions, fine particulate matter and other contaminants in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Torres said reports generated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the World Trade Center pollutants, as well as environmental assessments conducted by the U.S. military, show that samples contained such chemicals as benzene, toluene, styrene, anthracene and more.

The chemicals are linked to a variety of illnesses, including, anemia, cancer, kidney and lung disease, rashes, mental health conditions and nerve damage.

Illnesses deemed presumptive for World Trade Center first responders include: interstitial lung diseases, chronic respiratory disorders, asthma, reactive airways dysfunction syndrome, WTC-exacerbated chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic cough syndrome, upper airway hyper reactivity, chronic rhino sinusitis, chronic nasal pharyngitis, chronic laryngitis, castro esophageal reflux disorder, and sleep apnea exacerbated by or related to one of these conditions.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a group that advocates for veterans as well as 9/11 first responders and victims, believes more research is needed on burn pit and other exposures to help guide VA health and benefits policies now and in the future.

"It seems we are seeing more research that says there is a health impact," said IAVA research director Jackie Maffucci. "There is a case to be made for an official review of the latest research. It needs to happen."

A Defense Department spokesman said the department had no record of receiving the Burn Pits 360 letter and logs all incoming correspondence.

VA officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.

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