A new study finds some Air Force reservists could have been exposed to Agent Orange while flying missions in the U.S. Vets who have been denied benefits claims are hoping the Veterans Administration will change its stance on Agent Orange exposure outside Vietnam, and this independent report by the non-profit Institute of Medicine could help their cause.
C-123s, also known as Ranch Hands, are big cargo planes that were used to spray insecticides and Agent Orange, a highly toxic defoliant, during the war in Vietnam. But the planes have a lesser-known history: they were used here in the U.S. by the Air Force reserves from 1972 until the early 1980s. Crews at the former Rickenbacker Air Force Base in Columbus, Pittsburgh Air Reserve Base and Westover Air Reserve Base in Massachusetts spent hours on the planes, many on medical flights.
“We knew of their history,” said Major Wes Carter, who was a medical technician in the reserves at Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts at the time. “However, it was a period of innocence. Everybody thought that with the spray tanks removed that there was no lingering problem.”
Decades later, Carter and other former C-123 crewmen started getting sick.
“In 2011, I had a heart attack and was informed the same week that I had prostate cancer,” Carter said. He did some research, and discovered the planes were still contaminated with Agent Orange, which contains highly toxic dioxin. He found out one of C-123s, nicknamed “Patches”, was removed from display at the Air Force Museum in Dayton in the mid-90s for decontamination. Documents show the Air Force was worried about workers and even tourists being exposed. From 1980 until 1994, the plane was on display in the museum annex outdoors, and it was moved to the indoor Southeast Asia War Gallery where it can still be seen today. The museum says it has never had any complaints from museum workers about possible exposure to Agent Orange.
But until this month, the VA has denied all initial claims for C-123 veterans. The only people whose benefits claims related to C-123s have been accepted have been on appeal, and Carter’s advocacy group has documented both Air Force and VA denial of any link between C-123s and negative health outcomes. In 2012, the School of Aerospace Medicine at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base released a consultative letter saying "it is not considered legitimately possible to quantify with any degree of certainty" Agent Orange exposure for C-123 vets, and that "any ingestion of contaminants would likely be incidental and considered insignificant in terms of a lifetime dose."
Meanwhile, almost all of the planes in question have been destroyed. In the 1990s, according to documents obtained by Carter, plans to sell them were reversed when the Air Force realized how much Agent Orange residue was still in the planes. Before their smelting in 2010, documents show an Air Force consultant warned about the potential negative publicity that could come from further delay in getting rid of them. “Patches” is one of the only remaining C-123s in the country.
Dr. Jeanne Stellman, an Agent Orange expert at Columbia University in New York, worked on an article published last year in the journal Environmental Research that blasts the VA for ignoring the existing science on Agent Orange.
“It seemed to us to be a total no-brainer that there was exposure possible,” said Stellman. The article suggests dioxin, also known as 2,3,7,8- tetrachlorodibenzo para dioxin or TCDD, could have been absorbed through hand-to-mouth contact and inhalation. The scientists on the study, including one who is recently retired from the Air Force in Dayton, found that reservists were likely to have reached the lifetime limit for exposure to dioxin within three years of work; many worked on Ranch Hands for five or ten years.
The study commissioned by the VA from the IOM says reservists quite likely did experience exposure that could be damaging.
“I think we’re a learning organization, we’re able to make the adjustments that are necessary, and we’re basically moving forward at this point,” said Dr. Ralph Erickson, the VA’s pre-9/11 post-deployment health expert.
Now the debate will likely shift towards policy, and how the VA will deal with vets’ claims moving forward. Establishing a causal link between toxic exposures and specific cancers can be difficult, particularly without clear flight records for individual vets. For that reason, in 1991 Congress established a protective policy for Vietnam vets: rather than requiring them each to document proof or to try to show causation, any Vietnam vet with one of several conditions recognized by the VA can make a claim and be given the benefit of the doubt on Agent Orange exposure. In 2010, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki issued a rule expanding the list of conditions to be included in the so-called "presumptive policy", and it is that standard of presumptive exposure the C-123 vets are pushing for today.
Carter says many of the vets he’s been in contact with have passed away already, and he worries the VA won’t be proactive even at this stage.
“A veteran should not have to advocate this hard, this long...to convince the VA that benefits are due,” he said.
Dr. Erickson says a task force will make recommendations to the VA secretary on next steps within months. Two weeks ago the VA updated its website to acknowledge the findings and encourage vets to file claims, although the website specifies each vet will have to “show on a factual basis that they were exposed in order to receive disability compensation” for related diseases including Hodgkin’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, prostate and lung cancer.
“Environmental issues such as this one are very important to the VA not only for us to better understand these environmental issues, but for us to quite frankly do a better job of caring for veterans who have had environmental exposures,” Erickson said.
The number of people who could have been exposed to Agent Orange through C-123 Ranch Hands is unknown, but the number could be as high as 2,100. Carter is hoping the VA will assist in finding and reaching out to veterans who may have been affected, but any action on the VA’s part has yet to be announced.
Vets who think they could have been exposed to Agent Orange in the Air Force reserves from 1972-1982 can find out more from the VA here: http://www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/agentorange/locations/residue-c123-aircraft/index.asp
Lewis Wallace is WYSO's managing editor, substitute host and economics reporter. Follow him @lewispants.