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Agent Orange’s effect on vets still murky decades later

Ursula Watson
The Detroit News

Forty years after the last U.S. troops helicoptered out of Saigon ending the Vietnam War, many veterans and their families are still on the front lines battling for more research into the effects of a controversial defoliant used to clear the southeast Asian jungle.

With the veterans exposed to Agent Orange aging, the focus is turning to the long-term effects on their offspring.

“We are not going to be around much longer,” said Bob Dew, who served in the Marines and is treasurer and chairman of the Agent Orange Town Hall Committee for Vietnam Veterans of America Plymouth-Canton Chapter 528.

“There is not going to be anybody to tell the story or who knows what happened unless we get the word out.”

More than 2.7 million Americans served in the Vietnam War, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, and more than 58,000 were killed. According to some estimates 850,000 are thought to be alive today. As of September, there were 237,675 Vietnam veterans in Michigan.

The VA does recognize and offer compensation for several diseases it and federal law presumes are associated with herbicide exposure. The department also recognizes a long list of birth defects among the veterans’ children that may be associated with exposure to Agent Orange

But the Vietnam Veterans of America group and members of Congress, including some in Michigan’s delegation, are pushing three bills that require more research and provide medical compensation to all eligible vets and their offspring.

That would be a huge benefit to Lori Weber of Canton.

She has been diagnosed with hip dysplasia, a birth defect that the VA acknowledges is a common medical defect found in the children of women who served in Vietnam. It does not acknowledge a link between hip dysplasia to Agent Orange.

“Since my father served and not my mother, I do not qualify for compensation,” said Weber, who has undergone 25 surgeries.

“I can’t heal, I can’t grow bone, my bone keeps dying,” said Weber, who retired from teaching two years ago due to her physical issues.

Weber, in her late 30s, said she lives on painkillers and is often confined to her home. She uses forearm braces or a wheelchair to get around.

“I can’t walk more than two blocks,” she said.

Weber said she fears she has passed a genetic time bomb to her 11-year-old son. A gifted student, Weber said her son struggles with following multi-step directions, suffers from acid-reflux and asthma. And her son’s limbs bend at odd angles as hers did as a child.

She said the government must dedicate more effort to studying Agent Orange and its effects.

“I am tired of doctors looking at me and saying, ‘I don’t know how to help you.’ ”

To help veterans, their families and the public sort through the issues related to Agent Orange, local chapters of the Maryland-headquartered VVA are sponsoring town hall meetings about the chemical.

VVA of Oakland County Chapter 133 has set an Agent Orange Town Hall meeting Oct. 24. Other area chapters held hearings this spring.

Trude Bennett of the University of North Carolina spoke at a May meeting about the health impact of Agent Orange, manufactured by Dow Chemical of Midland and other companies.

Bennett, an associate professor at the university’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, has worked in Vietnam for the past 15 years studying the harm to health and environment caused by the use of herbicides during the war.

“I believe the U.S. government and the chemical manufacturers bear great responsibility, and I understand that those exposed continue to suffer and worry deeply about future generations,” Bennett wrote in an email.

According to Dr. Ralph Erickson, the VA’s acting chief consultant for post deployment health, there are two long-term health studies being conducted by the Air Force Health Study and the Army Chemical Corp of veterans involved in the handling and spraying of Agent Orange.

Also, the Office of Public Health is designing a study to look at the health of Vietnam-era veterans who served on the ground offshore with the Navy or who served in other areas. Surveys are expected to be sent out in early 2016 and findings are expected to be published in 2017-18.

Placing a number on how many veterans were exposed to the herbicide is difficult, said Edwin Martini, author of the book, “Agent Orange: History, Science, and the Politics of Uncertainty.”

“The short answer is that we really don’t know,” said Martini, a history professor at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. “When you take into account all the Vietnamese soldiers on both sides of the conflict, the Vietnamese civilians and the American troops serving there, the number is well into the millions.”

The VA says Agent Orange is an equal blend of herbicides, 2,4 dichlorophenoxyacetic acid and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid. It got its name from the orange bands used on the 55-gallon drums in which it was stored.

“None of the chemical companies have ever, and I don’t think ever will, admit that Agent Orange was in fact responsible for health concerns,” said Martini, who spoke at an Agent Orange town hall meeting sponsored by the VVA Plymouth-Canton Chapter 528, in May.

Legally, they don’t have to, he said. In a settlement for a 1984 class-action lawsuit, manufacturers of Agent Orange got a clause in the decision saying they did not admit to any guilt or any wrongdoing and they did not admit Agent Orange is responsible for adverse health effects.

A spokesman for Dow declined to comment.

“The scientific investigation of Agent Orange has gone on since the Vietnam War and continues today,” according to Dow’s website. “The very substantial body of human evidence on Agent Orange does not establish that veterans’ illnesses are caused by Agent Orange.”

The former Monsanto Co. was one of nine government contractors who manufactured Agent Orange from 1965 to 1969, according to Charla Lord, spokeswoman for Monsanto, headquartered in St. Louis. In 2002, Monsanto Co. was spun off from its chemical ties and identifies itself as a separate, independent agriculture company today, Lord said.

According to Monsanto’s website, “U.S. courts have determined that wartime contractors (such as the former Monsanto) who produced Agent Orange for the government are not responsible for damage claims associated with the chemistry.”

Brian Bobek, president of VVA Chapter 154 in Clinton Township, encourages veterans to sign up for the VA’s Agent Orange Registry Health Exam, which assesses health problems that may be related to exposure.

Bobek, who served in the Army in Vietnam, said he was in an area where Agent Orange was heavily used.

“I remember them telling us back in the day that this stuff is harmless. It will just kill the foliage,” said Bobek of Macomb Township.

Now 70, Bobek was diagnosed with prostate cancer six years ago, one of the presumptive diseases linked to Agent Orange.

Erickson of the VA said that as of June 8 the agency has conducted 636,049 initial Agent Orange examinations for the registry, with 18,853 incomplete.

Data on Agent Orange’s effect on humans and their offspring is sparse, Martini said.

“The area where the science is the weakest in terms of demonstrating the possible link between Agent Orange and health concerns is the area of birth defects, especially multi-generational,” he said.

Bobek’s 44-year-old daughter had what he described as a mild stroke at 19, which affected her speech and motor skills.

He said she fully recovered but Bobek said she still deals with health issues rare for someone her age.

“Is part of her medical problem due to me? I don’t know,” he said.