The C-123 transport planes that sprayed Agent Orange during the Vietnam War may have sickened service members who worked with the aircraft after the conflict, according to a new study.
The report, published last week in the scientific journal “Environmental Research,” supports claims that exposure to the toxic defoliant after the war is greater than previously believed.
Columbia University health-policy professor Jeanne Mager Stellman, who authored the study, said the findings conflict with U.S. Air Force and Department of Veterans Affairs conclusions and policies.
“Aircraft occupants would have been exposed to airborne dioxin-contaminated dust as well as come into direct skin contact, and our models show that the level of exposure is likely to have exceeded several available exposure guidelines,” Stellman said.
The VA has said that any postwar contamination on C-123s was not high enough to be linked to disease. But some lawmakers think the agency may be wrong.
Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), the top Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) have asked the VA’s inspector general to review whether the department is inappropriately denying disability benefits to veterans who claim they were sickened by postwar Agent Orange contamination.
“This is further evidence VA is out of step with the prevailing science — the facts speak for themselves,” Burr said of the report in a statement on Monday.
The VA said it will continue to review new scientific information on the issue as it becomes available and that it has asked the Institute of Medicine to study possible health complications among post-Vietnam C-123 crews.
“VA does not presume by regulation that these veterans were exposed to Agent Orange,” the agency said in a statement. “VA does presume exposure to Agent Orange for veterans who served in Vietnam because of the lack of exposure information that is available. We encourage anyone who believes they were exposed to Agent Orange to file a disability compensation claim or visit a VA health care facility.”
C-123s sprayed Agent Orange in Vietnam from 1962 to 1971 as part of Operation Ranch Hand, and about 1,500 Air National Guard and Reserve crew members flew the planes on cargo missions until 1982.
The study used U.S. Army algorithms and data from surface-wipe samples from aircraft used in Operation Ranch Hand to estimate “dioxin body burden,” comparing the results with available guidelines and standards.
“These models suggest that the potential for dioxin exposure to personnel working in the aircraft post-Vietnam is greater than previously believed and that inhalation, ingestion, and skin absorbtion were likely to have occurred during during post-Vietnam use of the aircraft by aircrew and maintenance staff,” a summary of the report said.
Merkley said in a statement on Monday that he hopes the study “prompts the VA to finally reverse their position and make sure all veterans suffering from Agent Orange exposure get the treatment and compensation they need and deserve.”
The VA in July reversed its denial of benefits for Paul Bailey, a retired Air Force lieutenant and postwar C-123 crew member who is sick with cancer. Advocates of the decision have described the move as the first of its kind for veterans seeking compensation for post-Vietnam exposure to the defoliant.
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