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Washington — Michigan Democrats are pushing a bill to require the Department of Veterans Affairs to cover treatment for veterans' health conditions caused by exposure to toxic PFAS chemicals while living or working on military bases. 

Under the legislation, introduced this week, the PFAS-related illnesses would also be considered a service-connected disability, meaning veterans and their families could be eligible for disability payments and medical treatment from the VA, lawmakers said. 

"We've all heard of the fight after Vietnam over exposure to Agent Orange, and how it took years and years and years, and veterans are still fighting now to be recognized and get the treatment that they deserved," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing. 

"We don't want that happening on this set of chemicals."

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been used to make furniture, paper packaging for food and cookware resistant to water, grease or stains, as well as firefighting foam widely used by the military and airports.

The chemicals are linked to health effects including certain cancers and damage to liver and immunity functions, restricted development of fetuses, as well as cognitive and behavioral effects in exposed children.

"The military has refused to cover many of these health issues. This bill, however, will ensure that they do that," said Rep. Dan Kildee, the Flint Township Democrat whose district includes the PFAS-affected Oscoda community.  

Lawmakers said eligible health conditions under the Veterans Exposed to Toxic PFAS Act would be determined by two studies, including one underway by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

"This bill makes sure that, regardless of the outcome of this study, that our veterans and their families aren't going to have to worry that they will have to fight again to get the health care they need," Stabenow said. 

Several members told reporters Thursday at the Capitol they have gotten inquiries from veterans about what it means if they worked at a base where PFAS has been detected and whether they'll be covered. 

"Our office has just taken a tremendous number of calls from veterans on a range of issues but the inability to actually get a straight answer to them I think is frustrating for all of us," said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Holly Democrat and former Pentagon official.  

"We all feel strongly that we owe them an answer, and the EPA owes us a standard." 

The Environmental Protection Agency has not issued an enforceable national standard for PFAS in drinking water, and its long-promised cleanup guidelines for federal sites contaminated by PFAS have been delayed by months.

The VA legislation is among several PFAS bills introduced in Congress this year, including one that would fund nationwide sampling to detect new PFAS sites and another to require the EPA declare PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances under the Superfund statute.

Kildee, co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional PFAS Task Force, indicated that House leaders have discussed moving PFAS bills simultaneously, hopefully along with a "significant increase in appropriations for cleanup," he said.  

mburke@detroitnews.com 

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