The hidden legacy of Agent Orange, part 1

All wars are brutal, but some are more savage than others in the number of people killed and how they died. During World War I (1914-1918) approximately 19.7 million people lost their lives — 9.7 million military personnel and 10 million civilians. Chemical weapons were used by both sides to kill over 90,000 combatants and injure approximately 1.2 million more.

Although the number of deaths in the Vietnam War — 1.35 million military personnel including 58,200 Americans, and up to 2 million North and South Vietnamese civilians — was much less than in World War I, the toxic impact of chemical agents was significant. During Operation Ranch Hand (1962-1971) the U.S. military sprayed approximately 20 million gallons of “rainbow herbicide” defoliants: agents orange, green, blue, pink, purple and white (nicknamed for the color on the barrels in which they were shipped) in Vietnam (primarily), eastern Laos and parts of Cambodia.

Approximately 65% of rainbow herbicides contained dioxin, one of the most toxic materials ever manufactured. Dioxins can cause cancer, reproductive problems (including spontaneous abortions) developmental problems, damage to the immune system, type 2 diabetes, ischemic heart disease and interfere with hormones.

Agent Orange was the principal herbicide used — 11.7 million gallons — and typically dispensed via Air Force C-123 Provider aircraft fitted with sprayers. The lethal compound was also sprayed from trucks, river boats and backpack sprayers. By the conclusion of Ranch Hand in 1971, almost 12,000 square miles (about the size of Maryland) of forest and crop land were defoliated.

The goal of Ranch Hand was to deprive enemy forces of concealment and food supplies. Also, to protect the perimeters of bases (the gigantic Da Nang air base, for example) and clear plant life and brush from potential ambush sites along roads and canals. This strategy no doubt saved an unknown number of American lives. But at what cost? How many post war American, Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian lives have been lost and how many people have suffered horribly since Ranch Hand ended 50 years ago?

Military personnel, informed Agent Orange was harmless, began to think otherwise as many veterans were sickened in the years following their return from Vietnam. The number of “presumptive conditions related to Agent Orange exposure” (including numerous cancers) has increased over the years with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recently adding bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinsonism to the list of maladies.

Writing in the Concord Monitor (New Hampshire) newspaper, columnist and Vietnam veteran Paul Nichols wrote that Agent Orange-exposed veterans, “years after returning from the war, were killed in Vietnam and didn’t know it.”

During a 1979 congressional hearing on Agent Orange (one of the first to question if there was a link between that compound and Vietnam veterans health problems), then-Tennessee Representative Al Gore asked: “I wonder what the reaction of the VA would be if the enemy had used Agent Orange?”

Especially alarming were the many birth defects in children of veterans: shortened limbs, extra limbs, missing limbs, extra vertebrae, missing vertebrae and immune disorders among others. The advancing field of epigenetics has determined that chemical exposure can effect multiple generations as it causes changes in gene expression. That is, whether a gene is turned on or off can be passed from one generation to the next.

The Veterans Administration currently “recognizes a wide range of birth defects (18 but not limited to those conditions) associated with women who served in Vietnam.” However, this recognition is qualified by the VA: “These diseases are not tied to herbicides, including Agent Orange, or dioxin exposure, but rather to the mother’s service in Vietnam.” Of males who served in the war only spina bifida in their children is considered Agent Orange related. As a relatively small number of women served in Vietnam (about 11,000) the vast majority of veterans’ children with post war birth defects have little if any VA healthcare recourse.

The ProPublica investigative journalism group reports that in 1979 a team of researchers conducted a $143 million “extremely detailed,” 20-year study of Air Force veterans who had the greatest exposure to Agent Orange — individuals who handled, transported and sprayed it. Results indicated “a statistically significant increase in reported birth defects” among veterans who handled that toxic compound. Researchers submitted their findings but superiors failed to release them stating more research was needed.

Under pressure from Congress in 1988, the study was finally released with only one name on it — Dr. Richard Albanese, a lead researcher. In 1992, the Air Force published a follow-up document stating no evidence was found linking Agent Orange to birth defects in the men’s children. Albanese told ProPublica he believes the latter analysis was flawed. “These people really bent over backwards to try to disprove the connection. … I’m so sad and so angry that science could be corrupted this way.” An Air force veteran, Albanese noted, “I’m a faithful military man, but this was not honorable behavior.”

ProPublica reports that “for decades the Department of Veterans Affairs has collected — and ignored — reams of information” about Agent Orange veterans and their children. Along with the Virginia-Pilot newspaper, ProPublica obtained permission from the VA to analyze (protecting the identity of individuals) data of 37,535 Vietnam veterans who had children before and after the war.

The data set was divided into two groups: those veterans who answered “definitely yes” when asked if they had handled, sprayed or been sprayed with agent orange and a second group of veterans who said they were definitely not exposed or were unsure if they were exposed to Agent Orange. The analysis controlled for variables such as the age and health status of veterans.

In 2016, ProPublica reported that both groups had similar pre war rates of children born with birth defects: 2.6% for Vietnam veterans having no exposure and 2.8% for those who were exposed to Agent Orange. Both groups reported a substantial increase in birth defects among their children born after the Vietnam War — 9.8% for the unexposed group and 13.1% for those stating they handled, sprayed or were sprayed by Agent Orange. Birth defects for the latter group were 30% higher than for the non-exposed group of Vietnam veterans.

George J. Bryjak served in Okinawa and Vietnam with the First Marine Air Wing. He lives in Bloomingdale.


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