In the seaside city of Da Nang, Vietnam, a clean-up is underway to remove dioxin-contaminated soil at a former U.S. military air base. Some 8,500 miles to the east, another clean-up is underway to remove dioxin hot spots along the Passaic River in Newark, NJ and upstream, where tides and floods have washed the worrisome stuff into a county park and into mudflats along a popular stretch of water where high school rowers race and families often relax along the banks and fish.
Long after the Vietnam War ended, the toxic trail left by dioxin-laced Agent Orange stretches from Newark, where herbicides were manufactured for the military in a way that created a long-lasting contaminant, to Southeast Asia—where millions of gallons of the supersized plant-killer were sprayed on jungles, mangrove swamps, military bases and airfield perimeters during a decade of war starting in 1962.
Unveiled by the Internet’s astounding accumulation of news and government reports, the toxic trail of testing, transporting and trying out these chemicals—which were made in New Jersey, Michigan, West Virginia, Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas—further extends to South Korea, Australia, Canada, Guam, Panama, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Mississippi, Florida, Maryland, New York and many other states.
This alarming drumbeat of news reports began in the late 1960s, as the chemical spray operations aimed at exposing enemy ambush sites and supply routes in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand set off rising waves of concern about rashes of health problems among Vietnamese villagers.
The herbicide spraying on the other side of the world forty-some years ago still reverberates here at home, especially among Vietnam veterans.
“They sell huge shrimp in stores here—check the package to see where it’s from. They grow shrimp in bomb craters in Vietnam,” says Jim Fallon, of Hoboken, NJ, who developed bone cancer in his right arm after serving as a U.S. Army medic in Vietnam.
Fishing Health Advisory in New Jersey
Besides Vietnamese fish ponds, Fallon notes, fishing spots here at home are affected as well. In August, New Jersey officials issued an updated warning against eating blue craw crabs from the lower Passaic River and Newark Bay. The latest fishing advisory notes that in 2005, when the state sued chemical companies for dumping in the river, “dioxin concentrations in Passaic River crabs and fish were among the highest in the world.”
“While some crabs may appear healthy, contaminants found in blue claw crabs and some fish pulled from these waters can be harmful to fetuses and infants,” New Jersey’s environmental protection and health agencies warned. “Women of child-bearing years, pregnant women and nursing mothers, in particular, are urged not to ingest these crabs from this region. Children are also at risk of developmental and neurological problems if these crabs are eaten.”Jim Fallon, like many Vietnam veterans, has become acutely attuned to news about Agent Orange and dioxin—and the questions that arise with each lifting of the veils of secrecy that government officials long maintained regarding this issue.
“They were always telling us it was mosquito repellent,” Fallon said of spraying operations when he was stationed at Long Binh military base in 1968-69. “Every once in awhile, it had a different smell, a kerosene smell.” One day, he went on a helicopter medevac mission to a forested area he had previously flown to. “It was dead—there wasn’t a leaf on a tree,” Fallon said.
He first learned of the potential consequences of exposure to these chemicals in 1990, Fallon recalled, when a doctor in New York treating him for complications from bone cancer, said “You know, this is from Agent Orange.”
In 1991, after more than a decade of calls by veterans to investigate their health concerns, Congress passed legislation ordering a federal review of health studies regarding dioxin and that health care be provided to affected veterans. This was a sea change from previous official denials that Agent Orange caused the severe illnesses that hit many veterans shortly after the war ended in 1975. These ailments included often rare cancers in young men on the cusp of age 30 and spina bifida in children whose fathers served in Vietnam.
In the past two decades, hundreds of thousands of veterans have filed Agent Orange health claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has paid out more than $3.6 billion to veterans or their survivors, according to military.com. Another 230,000 claims are in the VA’s over-stretched processing pipeline.
The VA’s latest list of illnesses associated with dioxin exposure—including cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and diabetes—reads like admissions files at nursing homes. Yet these folks, now primarily in their 60s, often developed these debilitating ailments years ago, when they were much younger.
And the ranks of those whose health may be affected by Agent Orange continues to grow.
'Blue Water' Navy Exposure
“The Australians have done three complete studies of their naval, air, and ground service personnel who served in or near Vietnam. That is how we in America discovered how the Blue Water Navy veterans were exposed, which was independently verified by the special review of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Sciences last year,” Rick Weidman of Vietnam Veterans of America advised fellow vets in May. “The desalinization units on Australian and American ships had the perverse effect of concentrating the dioxin that was contained in the herbicide mixed with kerosene or JP-4 fuel, thus keeping it on or near the surface many miles out to sea, where it was taken in by our warships to produce potable water.”In Vietnam, where the U.S. Agency for International Development is overseeing an estimated $43 million cleanup at the Da Nang airfield, the biggest worry about the residue of dioxin is birth defects.
“As many as one million people in Vietnam have disabilities or other health problems associated with Agent Orange, the Vietnamese Red Cross has estimated, citing local studies,” CNN reported in August. A detailed look at birth defects in Da Nang and other areas of Vietnam is provided in a recently published book, Scorched Earth: Legacies of Chemical Warfare in Vietnam, by Fred A. Wilcox.The book includes numerous startling photos of children with birth defects in Vietnamese cities taken by Brendan Wilcox, the author's son.
What happened in Vietnam is "a tragedy that, unlike earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and wars of limited duration, has been maiming and killing people for decades," writes Wilcox, an Ithaca College professor who wrote one of the first investigative books about this issue, Waiting for an Army to Die: The Tragedy of Agent Orange, published in 1989.
"The war in Vietnam was not the first time that a nation resorted to a scorched earth strategy against an enemy in war; however, it was the first time in human history that ... a government inadvertently poisoned its own army, then waited for this army to die," Wilcox writes in his latest book.In response to complaints by veterans who for years were told to prove they were exposed to Agent Orange spray on a certain day in a specific location, the VA now says that all 2.6 million military veterans who served in Vietnam are presumed to have been exposed. Among the recognized illnesses it provides health care or compensation for, the agency lists spina bifida as a birth defect associated with dioxin poisoning.
Many veterans worry whether their exposure to Agent Orange caused other birth defects. “I ran into a guy from my unit. He said two of the guys had children born with holes in the heart,” says Jim Fallon, speaking of his New York-based Army Reserves medical unit that served at the 74th Field Hospital in Vietnam.
Noting the wide variety of other birth defects reported among Vietnamese children, veterans who monitor this issue contend that our government has repeatedly delayed reviewing studies of dioxin’s potential effects on a troubling range of birth defects among children and, in some cases, grand-children of Vietnam veterans.
“We now know that when we expose troops to toxins during their military service, we subject their children and future generations to the effects of those same toxins,” Alan Oates, a retired Army first sergeant who heads Vietnam Veterans of America’s Agent Orange/Dioxin Committee, noted recently. “That is why it is important for us to get answers and action before we leave this world.”
(A version of this article appeared in the Jan. 27th issue of The Record newspaper in New Jersey.)