More than 204,000 veterans and service members have signed on to the Department of Veterans Affairs Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, VA announced Tuesday.
The registry was established in June 2014 and allows current and former service members to self-report toxic exposures and health concerns using an online questionnaire. That registry and their responses can be used to discuss health issues with doctors and other providers.
“Concerns about the long-term effects of exposure to burn pits remain a priority,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a statement. “By joining the registry, veterans, service members and the department will further understand the impact of deployment-related exposures on health.”
VA credited the Defense Department with an extra push to put participation beyond the 200,000 mark, which it called a "major milestone."
The Pentagon encouraged registry participation in a letter to more than 700,000 active-duty, National Guard and Reserve members, VA said.
To participate in the registry, veterans and troops must complete the questionnaire and receive an in-person exam. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, most VA facilities are deferring those exams to prevent the spread of the virus.
Veterans, advocates and lawmakers on Capitol Hill have raised concerns during the pandemic that veterans exposed to toxins during service -- including those exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange and other hazards -- were not being warned about their vulnerability to infection, or were otherwise not being cared for properly by VA.
They made sure to mention that the 200,000 registry members were likely only a fraction of the total number of veterans and service members exposed to airborne toxins. VA has estimated that number at as many as 3.5 million.
Some veterans on the registry have reported that they received an email from the department about toxic exposures and COVID-19, but others on the registry said they did not.
“We do know that veterans who are over the age of 65 or who have underlying health conditions such as asthma, chronic lung problems or other underlying medical issues may be more susceptible and experience more severe symptoms if infected with the coronavirus as is seen in the general population,” the email read.
When Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America launched its burn pits campaign in 2018, Tom Porter, an IAVA spokesman, said the registry had just 140,000 members.
"(This is a) good byproduct of VSOs and Congress stepping up the conversation around toxic exposures," Porter said.
When veteran service organizations appeared before members of Congress earlier this year to share their top legislative priorities, almost all listed toxic exposures as one of their main focuses.