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VA urges veterans potentially exposed to hazardous toxins to apply for PACT Act benefits

The St. Louis Veterans Affairs Medical Center — John Cochran Division main entrance on Monday, Aug. 1, 2022, in Grand Center.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The St. Louis Veterans Affairs Medical Center — John Cochran Division main entrance on Aug. 1 in Grand Center. The VA St. Louis Health Care System is encouraging area veterans to apply for PACT Act benefits at an event Tuesday.

Many St. Louis area veterans may qualify for toxic exposure-related health care and benefits under the PACT Act.

The new law, which Congress passed this summer, expands benefits and health care for veterans who have been exposed to hazardous toxins like radiation, smoke, toxic air, Agent Orange and burn pits. The VA St. Louis Health Care System is hosting an event to encourage veterans to apply for those benefits.

It’s part of a nationwide effort to educate veterans about the new law.

“These toxic exposures really don’t play out for many many years,” said Dr. Donna Coffman, a registry exam lead with the VA St. Louis Health Care System.

According to Coffman, roughly 1 in 3 veterans have reported concerns that they were exposed to something toxic. Roughly 1 in 4 have reported that their health issues are related to potential exposure. She said that along with the expansion of benefits, the PACT Act has helped with research efforts.

“Can we pin down what veteran was where and what they may have been exposed to?” Coffman said. “Can we control as many variables as possible to see what we can point out as causation?”

The PACT Act event, which will be held at the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, will offer veterans the opportunity to do toxic exposure screenings, apply for related benefits and learn more about participating in research studies.

The screening is not an examination, but rather a list of questions to understand what symptoms the veterans are experiencing and what they may have been exposed to. Unlike the screening, the research exam does include a variety of tests like blood work, chest X-rays, an EKG, as well as a physical exam. Coffman hopes more veterans will participate in the research study, because all of the long-term effects of toxic exposure aren't known.

“It took us a long time to establish that it was more common for Agent Orange-exposed veterans to have diabetes than we would have expected,” Coffman said. “That kind of database is hard to assemble, and it takes a long time, and it takes a lot of support.”

Coffman said the PACT Act also gives more money to research the long-term effects of toxic exposure. “How many men and women should we expect to be affected by this?” she said. “And if they are affected, what kind of treatments are going to be effective?”

Symptoms for toxic exposure vary from veteran to veteran. Shortness of breath, respiratory issues like asthma development post deployment, GI complaints, chronic bronchitis and cancer may be signs of exposure to hazardous toxins. Coffman said it’s important for doctors to ask veterans if they’re experiencing symptoms that could be from exposure.

“To stop and say, ‘You know, are you having any symptoms that you’re concerned about that we haven’t talked about that might be related to exposure,’” Coffman said. “And it opens that conversation. And I think that is a really important part of what this particular act does for us. It gives us this opportunity to open this and then offer the veteran some way to resolve the concerns.”

The PACT Act event will be held from 3 to 7 p.m. Dec. 13 at the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis. Veterans must bring a copy of their DD214 and ID.

Marissanne is the afternoon newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.