November 5, 2011
Christopher J. Portier, Ph.D.
Director, National Center for Environmental Health and
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Atlanta, GA 30333
Dear Doctor Portier,
In August you kindly responded to my request for help regarding the dioxin exposure experienced by Air Force C-123 aircrews. The C-123 was the plane which, until the year before we started flying it, was used for spraying Agent Orange in Vietnam. We flew them from 1972-1982.
I have to ask for your help. I have a crewmate, Master Sergeant George Gadbois of Warner-Robins, who is at Emory and who learned last Friday he has perhaps a year of declining health before his death from soft tissue sarcoma, lung cancer and brain cancer. Although he is retired Air Force, he has been denied VA Agent Orange benefits…not because he wasn’t exposed, but because the VA says he can’t prove it at least to a greater than 50% likelihood. Master Sergeant Gadbois was decorated for heroism in responding to a civilian chlorine explosion, but I’m afraid his heroism falters when faced with the VA obstructions.
We have had the final Catch-22 event, with a teleconference arranged by Senator Burr (NC) for me to discuss our aircrews’ exposure with VA representatives. The VA has decided, without specific research, that aircrews inside a “heavily contaminated” airplane could not be exposed via dermal contact because the skin is a good barrier. Neither could exposure occur via inhalation because there wasn’t much dust for the dioxin to adhere to. It seems to me that our skins were quite dirty and oily, adequate to permit transfer, and I certainly remember these cargo airplanes with dirt and dust flying everywhere.
The head of the Toxicology Department of Oregon Health Sciences University participated in the teleconference and his study, thus far, convinces him that we “most likely” were exposed. The same conclusion was reached by Columbia University School of Public Health.
The problem remains that the VA will not accept these experts’ opinions, but has said they would move only if the Air Force were to tell the VA that the airplanes were contaminated (nobody disputes this fact) and that the aircrews were exposed. The Air Force has said the VA has to make that determination as they will not. So the author Joseph Hiller would be pleased with yet another government Catch-22, but our aircrews are not amused with these agencies each referring us to the other for help…with the VA and AF already knowing that no action will be taken by either. When we flew the sick and wounded in aeromedical evacuation, we never tried to pass off the responsibility for action to others. Never.
I have been studying dioxin since my own cancer diagnosis in April, and cannot avoid the frequent references to both EPA and ATSDR in the literature. I have read your agency’s congressional mandate and mission statement carefully.
I ask that in response to your core value of compassion, that ATSDR look into our exposure issue.
I ask that in response to your goals of protecting the public from environmental hazards and toxic exposures and advancing the science of environmental public health, that ATSDR review the Air Force tests conducted on our airplanes and answer a simple question, vital to whether or not the VA will permit our veterans access to health care:
“Is it as likely to as not (the VA phrasing of an opinion) that aircrews flying “heavily contaminated” C-123 airplanes between the years 1972-1982 were exposed to dioxin?”
If this were a contemporary situation, I’m sure there would be rapid and conclusive government action…no airliner would be allowed to fly with dioxin levels 800% greater than building reentry standards. No agency would permit the public to be thus exposed.
I was Stan/Eval flight examiner for my crew position, and like other Stan/Eval flight examiners the safety of the airplane and the occupants was my primary military, legal, and moral responsibility…if I had known about the dioxin contamination I’d have been guilty of a courts-marshal offense if I’d allowed it to fly. These airplanes were so toxic the Air Force had to shred and smelt them, as they were too contaminated for landfill. Dr. Ron Porter, the Air Force toxicologist who first surveyed them testified in federal court “they are a danger to public health.”
I’m a soldier, but I’m also a member of the public and deserving, as is Master Sergeant Gadbois, of ATSDR at least commenting specifically on the contaminants I’ve been exposed to, and whether or not I’ve thus been exposed.
Wesley T. Carter, Major, USAF, Retired