The Hidden Legacy of Agent Orange, Part 1 | News, Sports, Jobs


All wars are brutal, but some are more savage than others in how many people are killed and how they died. During the First World War (1914-1918), approximately 19.7 million people lost their lives – 9.7 million servicemen and 10 million civilians. Chemical weapons were used by both sides to kill more than 90,000 fighters and wound around 1.2 million more.

Although the death toll in the Vietnam War – 1.35 million servicemen including 58,200 Americans and up to 2 million North and South Vietnamese civilians – was far lower than in World War I, the toxic impact of chemical agents was significant. During Operation Ranch Hand (1962-1971), the U.S. Army sprayed approximately 20 million gallons of “rainbow herbicide” defoliants: orange, green, blue, pink, purple, and white agents (nicknamed after the color of the drums they were shipped in) in Vietnam (primarily), eastern Laos, and parts of Cambodia.

About 65% of Rainbow Herbicides contained dioxin, one of the most toxic materials ever made. 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 primary herbicide used — 11.7 million gallons — and typically dispensed via Air Force C-123 Provider aircraft equipped with sprayers. The deadly compound has also been sprayed from trucks, river boats and backpack sprayers. When Ranch Hand ended in 1971, nearly 12,000 square miles (about the size of Maryland) of forest and cropland had been defoliated.

Ranch Hand’s purpose was to deprive enemy forces of concealment and supplies. Also, to protect base perimeters (the gigantic Da Nang Air Base, for example) and clear vegetation and brush from potential ambush sites along roads and canals. This strategy undoubtedly 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 that Agent Orange was harmless, began to think otherwise as many veterans became ill in the years following their return from Vietnam. Number of “suspected conditions related to exposure to agent orange” (including many cancers) has increased over the years, with the US Department of Veterans Affairs recently adding bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, and parkinsonism to the list of diseases.

Writing in the Concord Monitor newspaper (New Hampshire), columnist and Vietnam veteran Paul Nichols wrote that veterans exposed to Agent Orange, “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 whether there was a link between this compound and the health problems of Vietnam veterans), the Tennessee representative of the time, Al Gore, asked: “I wonder what the VA’s reaction would be if the enemy had used Agent Orange? »

The numerous birth defects in the children of veterans were particularly alarming: shortened limbs, extra limbs, missing limbs, extra vertebrae, missing vertebrae and immune disorders, among others. The evolving field of epigenetics has determined that chemical exposure can affect multiple generations because it causes changes in gene expression. In other words, whether a gene is turned on or off can be passed on from one generation to the next.

Currently, the Veterans Administration “recognizes a wide range of birth defects (18 but not limited to) associated with women who served in Vietnam.” However, this recognition is nuanced by the VA: “These illnesses are not related to herbicides, including Agent Orange, or dioxin exposure, but rather to mother service in Vietnam.” Of the men who served in the war, only their children’s spina bifida is believed to be linked to Agent Orange. Because a relatively small number of women served in Vietnam (about 11,000), the vast majority of children of veterans with post-war birth defects have little or no use of VA health care.

Investigative journalism group ProPublica reports that in 1979, a team of researchers ran a $143 million campaign “extremely detailed” A 20-year study of Air Force veterans who had the most exposure to Agent Orange – the people who handled, transported and sprayed it. Results shown “a statistically significant increase in reported birth defects” among veterans who have handled this toxic compound. The researchers submitted their findings but superiors did not publish them, saying further research was needed.

Under pressure from Congress in 1988, the study was finally published with only one name on it – Dr. Richard Albanese, a principal investigator. In 1992, the Air Force released a follow-up document stating that no evidence had been found linking Agent Orange to birth defects in the men’s children. Albanese told ProPublica he believes this latest analysis is flawed. “These people really bent over backwards to try to refute the link. … I am so sad and so angry that science can be corrupted in this way. An Air Force veteran, Albanese noted, “I am a loyal soldier, but this was not honorable behavior.”

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

The data set was divided into two groups: veterans who responded “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 did not know if they had been exposed to Agent Orange. The analysis controlled for variables such as veterans’ age and health status.

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

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

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