Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Lingering Legacy of Agent Orange


During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military sprayed a specially formulated herbicide that was stored in drums with orange stripes painted on them. They called it Agent Orange. Used to kill vegetation that hid enemy soldiers, this deadly chemical spray also affected many American soldiers as well as Vietnamese. Many Vietnam veterans have become ill with cancer and other diseases that have been linked to a contaminant in the herbicide.
Fort Detrick, a military base located in Fredrick, Md, was the main testing and research center for herbicides used in Agent Orange.  In recent years, area residents have raised concerns about what they see as a cancer cluster in the nearby neighborhoods surrounding Fort Detrick. Government officials deny there is a cancer cluster, although the state health department and a National Academy of Science panel are now taking a look at it. 

There is much skepticism as to whether the military will take any responsibility or admit to any wrong-doing. Randy White, the founder of the Kristen Renee Foundation, named after his daughter who died of brain cancer, has raised concerns about a possible cancer cluster based on surveys of residents of the area. White said that he had no confidence in the Department of Defense or a National Academy of Science review getting to the bottom of the issue in Fredrick.

A February 2011 news article in the Frederick News-Post quoting White's concerns noted that "Greenhouse tests of Agent Orange between August 1961 and June 1963 -- which the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has acknowledged as a cause of health problems for veterans who served at Fort Detrick at the time and for which it is currently paying disability claims -- are outlined in a classified report, the preliminary report says, so details about those tests have not yet been made available to the Corps of Engineers." The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the News-Post reported, found that "Fort Detrick tested an estimated 16.82 pounds of Agent Orange and similar defoliants between 1944 and 1951" on fields on the military post.

According to the law firm Brayton & Purcell, Agent Orange’s most harmful component is dioxin. They suggest that Agent Orange was made more dangerous due to an increased dioxin component in the military mixture of herbicides.

The US Environmental Protection Agency on its website page on dioxin states, "Dioxins refers to a group of toxic chemical compounds that share certain chemical structures and biological characteristics.  Dioxins can be released into the environment through forest fires, backyard burning of trash, certain industrial activities, and residue from past commercial burning of waste.  Dioxins break down very slowly and past releases of dioxins from both man-made and natural sources still exist in the environment.” The E.P.A. also notes that most living creatures have been exposed to dioxin at one time or another and that studies  found that exposure to high levels of dioxin can cause various health defects, including cancer.

The fact that dioxin takes so long to break down only makes it all the more dangerous. Especially in places like Frederick County and Fort Detrick where the effects of numerous years of alleged excessive testing and dumping of Agent Orange are still being sorted out. The investigation in Fredrick, Md is on-going, though results thus far have been inconclusive.

For more information:

Deshaun Mitchell, a junior at Ramapo College, is a communications major with a concentration in writing. Raised in New Jersey, he is a Newark native and graduate of Arts High School in downtown Newark.  Currently, Mitchell is working on obtaining his bachelor’s degree and finishing his first novel.

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