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Senators want masks for burn pit workers

The death of Sgt. Bill McKenna, a former West Babylon resident who died of cancer after being exposed to toxic fumes in Iraq, prompted two U.S. senators yesterday to call for the use of respirator masks near "burn pits" employed to dispose of military refuse.

McKenna, 41, died last week in Florida and was buried Monday on Long Island after suffering from a rare form of lymphoma discovered after he had been discharged.

The father of two had been stationed near a burn pit at the former Balad Air Base in Iraq and his exposure to toxins has been linked to his condition.

New York Sen. Charles Schumer and Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, both Democrats, wrote to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, asking for the change in military guidance that could "potentially prevent tragic cases like the death of Sgt. McKenna."

Burn pits are shallow excavations where refuse, from discarded plastic to human waste, has been incinerated near military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their use has triggered dozens of federal lawsuits from veterans.

In McKenna's case, a statement issued Wednesday by the New York office of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said it granted health and disability benefits based "on a physician's medical opinion that linked his disease to his exposures in Iraq."

The department, said the statement from spokesman James Blue, "is very concerned about the effects of exposure to toxins produced by burn pits."

The senators wrote that "military regulations should require that protective respirator masks be made available and shall be provided to all troops within range" of burn pits.

A Department of Defense spokeswoman said she could not comment on the senators' letter until it is reviewed by the secretary of defense.

McKenna's widow, Dina McKenna, said she is thankful for the senators' call for more safeguards. "I believe that these masks should be mandatory," she said, "and it should have been from the beginning because maybe it would have saved my husband from being sick and dying at the age of 41."

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