04 May 2012

USAF School of Aerospace Medicine Releases C-123 Agent Orange Letter

The Commander, USAF School of Aerospace Medicine has finally released the long-awaited examination of the C-123 Agent Orange contamination issue and it is totally lackluster! A buck-passer. Actually, a stab in the back of all C-123 veterans! (update: on 18 Jun 2015 VA agreed with the Institute of Medicine that this USAF report was scientifically and mathematically flawed)

The USAFSAM spent several months looking over earlier toxicologist's testing of the C-123 fleet, particularly Patches (Tail #362) which had the most documented contamination by dioxin left over from Operation Ranch Hand in Vietnam. Released by the unit's commander, a physician, no note is made of the individual researchers who worked on the study, unlike most other such reports. 
For our veterans, this is a tremendous disappointment. The errors abound and are certain to be brought up in other forums, particularly the Senate and the VA itself.
Here's our take on the report. First, it is not new science or research, but rather an examination of earlier tests and reports because all the subject aircraft have been destroyed - because they were toxic! The report is written by a physician, not a scientist. If there were professional toxicologists or other scientists, their names were left off the report. Our points are:

1. The report fails to state that the ten years exposure inside the aircraft for the crews would be more harmful than levels of TCDD as detected twelve and 27 years after the airplanes retired - one should assume, though here they did not, that contamination was more intense in the years before authoritative testing was done
2. The report does give some wiggle room, if they'd use it, for the VA and the IOM to provide benefit of the doubt for crews. In the Blue Water Navy situation the VA went with the IOM simply because of the IOM statement that sailor's exposure couldn't be ruled out - here, the contamination is confirmed but a misleading conclusion invented out of the true facts to offer a pretense that exposure, miraculously, wasn't likely to be damaging in the long-term. This will be interesting news to the world's toxicologists!
3. Great weight is given the results of the 2009 tests conducted at Davis-Monthan, yet the author of that report told veterans that no conclusions should be drawn regarding dioxin exposure from his data. Further, even those tests confirm TCDD presence - 27 years after the aircraft were stored in the Arizona desert. Again, one reasonable conclusion would be that those 27 years in storage, preceded by ten years of our flying, allowed TCDD to degrade and allowed the TCDD to be released via wind and rain (which freely enters this old aircraft - famously, the crews wore raincoats flying it especially in the cargo area!) No report specifies the degree of contamination which existed in 1972 when stateside crews started flying these aircraft - no attempt was made to provide a retrospective analysis of the earlier levels of our exposure
4. The 1994 and 1996 Air Force tests, done by the military's own toxicologists, are mentioned but dismissed. Here, an excuse to discard these early results was the cautious statement by the researchers that further testing would be necessary to fully characterize the contamination - logical enough but not an excuse to dismiss the results! These original 1994 researchers did, very clearly, establish to their professional satisfaction the fact that the cabin and flight deck were "heavily contaminated" on 100% of their test surfaces, and this damning characterization was noted in today's release - then dismissed without justification
5. No mention is given of the testimony of Dr. Ron Porter, AF toxicologist from the AF Armstrong Labs who also co-authored the 1994 and 1996 tests, where he swore under oath the C-123 fleet was "a danger to public health" such that they couldn't be used or sold
6. No mention is made of the fact that Patches at the Air Force Museum took three separate decontamination procedures before it was reasonably safe to place inside the facility - but crews flew this specific aircraft for a decade, over twelve years before this testing - and others in the fleet were even more contaminated!
7. No weight is given to the fact that contamination of the C-123 would have to be more intense as post-Vietnam crews began flying them in 1972, and more intense before the veterans' own repeated efforts to decontaminate the airplane - many AF documents detail the early scrapping and washing of Patches and the other aircraft, removing gooey black substances, scrubbing with Dawn detergent as directed by AFMC Warner-Robbins - the airplanes would necessarily then have been more contaminated in 1972 before any testing which was first done in 1979 (and that was not a test for dioxin, only military herbicides which were confirmed to be present)
8. No mention is made of the ATSDR letter nor are the points of Dr. Sink's letter dealt with. He says the AF and VA have both contacted him and wishes the C-123 veterans "good luck", and stands behind his letter
9. And the big point: The report says not enough data could be located to draw a conclusion about aircrew exposure, but still it draws the conclusion that the aircrews were not exposed to enough for long-term health problems. This is a set of statements 180 degrees apart from one another
10. Various laws dealing with exposure to agents used in Vietnam generally group them as "military herbicides" - every single test done on these aged airplanes has confirmed the contamination of them by "military herbicides" - a fact not even touched upon in today's reports

C-123 veterans believe the AF is justifiably concerned about earlier sales of the C-123s to Disney Films and to South Korea and Thailand through the AF Security Assistance Center at Wright-Patterson. A bit embarrassing to tell another government we sold them dioxin-contaminated airplanes. This report has chewed over what old data could be uncovered, dismissed the military's own test conclusions, and constructed a denial of the aircraft even being contaminated!

Why didn't they simply say enough doubt exists to extend the benefit of the doubt, or clearly state there is a possibility, through remote to some degree, of aircrew exposure?

C-123 veterans agree with the report's conclusions that it would be virtually impossible for patients, paratroops, cargo attendants, and other passengers to have had any exposure. Veterans, however, feel strongly that the aircrews, maintainers and aerial port personnel absolutely were exposed.

Colonel Christian Benjamin, USAF MC CFS
Tell us, Colonel Benjamin. If these aircraft were being delivered to AFMC today, would you find them airworthy and safe for flight? Would any of these veterans' illnesses today been less likely to manifest themselves if they hadn't been exposed to such long-term duties aboard this "danger to public health?"

Frankly, this report smells of VA editing all over the place. Unwarranted assumptions are injected to construct an artifice that denies aircrew exposure, and obvious facts are ignored.  Maybe USAFSAM and AFMC leadership should have added their signatures to Colonel Benjamin's. Should USAFSAM welcome VA into to the Wright-Patterson blue-suit "Band of Brothers?"

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