22 March 2012

Agent Orange - How'd This Mess Get Revealed?

(from the National Academies Press)

The Beginning of the Controversy

Snoopy Explains Agent Orange to his ground crew!
During the early and mid-1970s, a growing number of veterans began to question the possible linkage between their conditions or diseases and their exposure to herbicides, mainly Agent Orange, in Vietnam. In 1977, Maude deVictor, a benefits counselor in the Chicago regional office of the Veterans Administration (VA), was contacted by the wife of Charles Owen, a Vietnam veteran who believed his terminal cancer was the result of exposure to Agent Orange. 

After learning that Charles Owen had died and that the VA had refused his widow's claim for benefits, deVictor began to research the health effects of exposure to Agent Orange (Wilcox, 1989). She contacted Alvin L. Young, Major, U.S. Air Force, an expert in plant physiology, and inquired about the types of herbicides used in Vietnam. DeVictor recorded the conversation in a memorandum to the file, which explained the use and toxicity of Agent Orange and Agent Blue (DeVictor, 1977). In response to this memorandum, a line-by-line commentary was prepared by Dr. Young, and a copy was recorded in a congressional hearing (U.S. Congress, House, 1980b).
DeVictor continued her inquiries into the possible connection between Agent Orange and certain health outcomes. She began gathering statistics on veterans' exposure to Agent Orange by questioning veterans who visited her office for benefits, widows of veterans, and wives of veterans about the health of their husband and children. When the VA learned that she was carrying out this research, she was asked to cease these additional inquiries and concentrate on her assigned duties, but she continued her research on Agent Orange. 

Soon after, someone contacted Bill Kurtis, a local television reporter, about deVictor's inquiries on veterans' exposure to Agent Orange (Linedecker et al., 1982). On March 23, 1978, WBBM, a CBS affiliate in Chicago, aired Kurtis' documentary Agent Orange, the Deadly Fog. Subsequently, local and national media began to report on Agent Orange and veterans' complaints with more frequency (Wilcox, 1989).
Early in 1978, Paul Reutershan, a former helicopter crew chief responsible for transporting supplies to the 20th Engineering Brigade, appeared on the ''Today" show and shocked many of the show's viewers by announcing: "I died in Vietnam, but I didn't even know it." He told of how he flew almost daily through clouds of herbicides being discharged from C-123 cargo planes, and how he observed the dark swaths cut in the jungle by the spraying, and watched the mangrove forest turn brown and die (Wilcox, 1989). Even though he observed this destruction of the jungles and forests, he did not worry about his own health. He said that he was told by the Army that Agent Orange was "relatively nontoxic to humans and animals" (Wilcox, 1989). 

Upon returning home from Vietnam, Reutershan was diagnosed with cancer.  On December 14, 1978, at the age of 28, Reutershan died.

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