10 July 2013

VA Perverts USAF Study of C-123 Agent Orange Exposure - Prevents Exposed Veterans' Claims

In 2012 the Air Force released its review of veterans' claims of exposure to Agent Orange contaminating C-123 transports used in Vietnam for Operation Ranch Hand. C-123s sprayed about 95% of the Agent Orange used, and subsequent tests firmly established the lingering contamination of the transports, forever toxic due to dioxin. The policy-driven report was prepared by military and Civil Service physicians and scientists at Wright-Patterson AFB's USAF School of Aerospace Medicine, but for some curious and worrisome reason, not actually signed by them and instead issued over the signature of supervisors not associated with the research.

Severely faulted by the Senate as well as the medical and scientific community which challenged the report in great detail, Air Force leaders eventually drew back somewhat from their final stance on the subject, informing the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that the report should not be used by the Department of Veterans Affairs to obstruct any veteran's Agent Orange exposure claim.

But that's not how the VA wants the situation. Always eager to grasp or create any excuse to deny claims, VA even used the Air Force report as weak justification for canceling their promised Institute of Medicine special project which was to independently evaluate C-123 veterans' evidence of exposure.
Seizing any excuse to deny claims, VA cites the Air Force report as a foundation of their barrier to all C-123 veterans' exposure claims. Indeed, it is a core element of the decision by VA's Post-Deployment Public Health Service that VA "cannot permit" any C-123 claims, regardless of merit, evidence, law or common sense.

VA's web site addressing C-123 Agent Orange contamination doesn't explain that VA denies all claims from exposed veterans. VA's web site doesn't explain that its Compensation Services has told veterans that no amount of proof from whatever source will move them to permit a single claim to be approved. This statement was made to veterans who presented expert findings from the CDC, National Institutes of Health, US Public Health Service, EPA, Columbia University, University of Texas Medical School, Oregon Health Sciences University, VA and private physicians, and other authorities...all of whom VA has grouped as "unacceptable lay evidence." VA's Veterans Health Administration, it was explained, had decided to prohibit all C-123 veterans from being acknowledged as exposed. 

Veterans were told by Compensation Service's director that if they had a problem with that, they could go appeal. 

Obviously, elderly men and women already ill, and already having wasted two to three years in the normal course of a VA disability claim, do not find comfort in C&P's solution of an additional one or two years for appeal...all the while being denied essential VA medical care for cancers, heart disease, and other ailments associated with their decade of Agent Orange exposure. 

Back to the problem of the Air Force 2012 Consultative Letter. VA summarized three conclusions they found significant in the Air Force work, and published this summary on their web site:

"Testing for Agent Orange residue on planes used in Vietnam

The U.S. Air Force (USAF) collected and analyzed numerous samples from C-123 aircraft to test for Agent Orange. USAF's recent risk assessment report (April 27, 2012) (2.3 MB, PDF) found that potential exposures to Agent Orange in C-123 planes used after the Vietnam War were unlikely to have put aircrew or passengers at risk for future health problems. The report’s three conclusions:
  1. There was not enough information and data to conclude how much individual persons would have been exposed to Agent Orange.
  2. It is expected that exposure to Agent Orange in these aircraft after the Vietnam War was lower than exposure during the spraying missions in Vietnam.
  3. Potential Agent Orange exposures were unlikely to have exceeded standards set by regulators or to have put people at risk for future health problems."
If the three reasons were not considered carefully, they might persuade. Indeed, VA provides them as part of the boilerplate language they require regional offices to use in denying veterans' claims...a blanket policy of denial which the Secretary of Veterans Affairs assures the Senate does not exist. Perhaps, VA feels they don't have a "blanket policy" of denial, but a requirement that all such claims be denied seems like one, and so does the fact that no C-123 claim has ever been approved, other than through appeal to the Board of Veterans Appeals.

Those three Air Force reasons are flawed as regards veterans's claims. As has been detailed to the VA by many veterans and their advocates, these

1. As with Vietnam ground soldiers, and indeed, many of the Operation Ranch Hand Agent Orange spray veterans, as with C-123 veterans, it has never been possible to calculate an individual's exposure - that is why EPA, NIH and other authorities base exposure assessments on the study of the contamination situation. The point is, the crews were exposed and the Air Force's first conclusion in no way suggests otherwise.
2. It is commonsense that post-Vietnam C-123 crews, exposed to aircraft contamination but not drenched in Agent Orange as were Operation Ranch Hand aircrews, were exposed less than those veterans. Dr. Jeanne Stellman, Professor Emerita of the Mailman School of Public Health and perhaps the nation's leading Agent Orange expert, concluded, however, that post-Vietnam veterans were exposed more than ground soldiers, and less than Ranch Hand crews. Dr. Arnold Schecter of the University of Texas Medical School concluded the C-123 veterans were exposed about as much as Vietnam ground troops. The point is that, indeed, post-Vietnam C-123 crews were exposed. The Air Force's second conclusion in no way suggested otherwise.
3. The Air Force erred greatly in their third conclusion. There is no safe threshold for dioxin exposure. Although common in the environment at extremely low concentrations, regulators have indeed established safety thresholds which were exceeded with the contaminated C-123 fleet. Indeed, the military and civilian toxicology "gold standard" is the Army's TG312, which clearly shows crews were exposed. The only C-123 to ever undergo decontamination is at the USAF Museum in Dayton. Its contamination was determined to be 54 times the maximum safe entry goal set by the toxicologists and environmental scientists who cleaned it up. The point is, the C-123 crews were exposed and the Air Force's third conclusion in no way suggested otherwise.

VA completely ignores mention of the law. Indeed, the Air Force report, while flawed, suffices to establish the eligibility of post-Vietnam C-123 veterans for Agent Orange exposure under the 1991 Agent Orange Act, 38 C.F.R., and the 8 May 2001 Federal Register, page 23166. The law simply states that any veteran exposed to "military herbicides" outside the Vietnam War "boots on the ground" population, will be treated the same as Vietnam veterans. Very simple...the word is exposed. C-123 veterans, by a preponderance of evidence, certainly were exposed.

VA doesn't bother explaining their policy-driven route around the veterans' protection under the law...they just do it. And the veterans, if they live long enough, can appeal, just as the director of Compensation and Pension Services hsaid. Or, at least, perhaps their survivors can.

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