More Exposures Exposed

In recent years, the Agent Orange issue has transcended Vietnam. The “significant use” of herbicides around US bases in Thailand was disclosed by a Freedom of Information Act case in 2010. This spraying was done by ground units to eliminate vegetation for security purposes. VA now awards compensation on a case-by-case basis to those whose duty was at or near the perimeter of these bases.

VA also presumes the exposure of veterans who served between 1968 and 1971 in areas near the Demilitarized Zone in South Korea, where South Korean soldiers sprayed Agent Orange and other herbicides.

However, the most dramatic new challenge involves the old Ranch Hand airplanes, which were configured back to standard C-123s when the Vietnam War ended and were flown by US Air Force Reserve units in the United States for 10 years. These crews are now exhibiting the same illnesses attributed elsewhere to Agent Orange. Some of the aircraft —including Patches, which had to be decontaminated before going on display at the Air Force Museum—were found to be carrying residues of Agent Orange.

“In 2010, the Air Force destroyed 18 of the Vietnam-era aircraft in part because of concerns about potential liability for Agent Orange, according to Air Force memos documenting the destruction,” Steve Vogel of the Washington Post reported in August 2013.

The aircraft were shredded at Hill AFB, Utah, and the aluminum remains were destroyed at a furnace in Michigan heated to nearly 1,400 degrees to be sure the dioxin residues were gone.

A hazardous waste manager at Hill said that “Ben and Jerry’s ice cream has more dioxin than these aircraft,” but Vogel obtained several Air Force documents that indicated deeper complications.

Vogel quoted a memo in which a consultant advised recycling or disposing of the aircraft “as soon as possible to avoid further risk from media publicity, litigation, and liability for presumptive compensation.” Another memo said, “Smelting is necessary for these aircraft so the Air Force will no longer be liable for ‘presumptive compensation’ claims to anyone who ever worked around this ‘Agent Orange’ metal.”

In 2013, VA reversed its denial of an Agent Orange-related claim by a pilot who had flown Patches, often eating and sleeping on the aircraft, and who had since developed cancer. Subsequently, VA considered C-123 contamination claims on a case-by-case basis, but took the position that post-Vietnam exposures to these aircraft “were unlikely to have put aircrew or passengers at risk.” The effects differ from direct contact with Agent Orange in liquid or spray form. “In the dry form—for example, adhered to a surface—Agent Orange residue cannot be inhaled or absorbed through the skin and would be difficult to ingest,” VA said.

A finding by the Institute of Medicine on the C-123 contamination residues was expected but had not been announced as this article went to press in December. If IOM reports a connection between the contamination and the Reservists’ medical problems, VA must then make a determination about the status of the claimants.

The Prevailing Conclusion
The controversy, such as it is, rolls on. There is no doubt that the veterans have the health problems specified. However, the extent to which their illnesses were caused by exposure to Agent Orange as opposed to other causes cannot be determined. In a broader sense, the principle of presumption makes the question of little or no importance.

korat afb“It’s safe to assume that dioxin isn’t responsible for all of the lung cancer, ischemic heart disease, diabetes, and other ailments common to aging populations that now afflict Vietnam veterans,” says Peter Sills, an attorney who helped represent the Vietnam Veterans of America in the class action lawsuit. “But the government’s insistent, unsupportable attempts to prove that herbicides haven’t harmed its soldiers have made it impossible to tell which of these illnesses are service-related. In avoiding its responsibilities, the government has found itself under a far greater obligation than it would have faced if the job had been done correctly in the first place.”

Reports abound of Vietnamese civilians with birth defects and various illnesses said to be caused by exposure to herbicides. However, there is no data to distinguish between the possible effects of Agent Orange and other explanations for health problems in rural Vietnam in the 1960s, and the US government has not acknowledged any responsibility.

The overwhelming consensus of the medical-scientific community is that the Agent Orange dioxins cause cancer and other diseases and was responsible for these conditions among Vietnam veterans. The news media is almost universal in subscribing to the case against Agent Orange and public opinion is not far behind.

Nobody, including VA, has an accurate handle on the scope of Agent Orange claims, but new cases in the past five years alone number in the hundreds of thousands with retroactive benefit payments to veterans and their survivors reaching well into the billions of dollars.

The end of the Agent Orange story is not yet in sight.

John T. Correll was editor in chief of Air Force Magazine for 18 years and is now a contributor. His most recent article, “The Third Musketeer,” appeared in the December 2014 issue.


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