27 August 2014

AF Studies Agree – C-123 Crews Potentially Exposed to Agent Orange

2009: HAZMAT Quarantine for Toxic C-123 Fleet
In a recently located 1979 Air Force report in the USDA A.L. Young Library of Agent Orange documents, the Air Force was tasked to report to DOD (for inclusion in the VA perspective on Agent Orange) on "Criteria for Determining Herbicide Exposure." The paper was created by Air Force System Command's Command Surgeon.

Page Four makes a vital point for us. It reads:
"2. Personnel assigned to selected support functions that may have resulted in exposure to Herbicide Orange. This group included. for example, personnel that sprayed herbicides using helicopters or ground application equipment; personnel that may have delivered the herbicides to the units performing the defoliation missions; aircraft mechanics who were specialized and occasionally provided support to Ranch Hand aircraft; or personnel who may have flown contaminated C-123 aircraft but were not assigned to Ranch Hand (e.g. during the Tet Offensive, all Ranch Hand aircraft were reconfigured to transport supplies and equipment, and were assigned to non-Ranch Hand squadrons."

To this, we can add a gem accidently released by the Air Force in last weeks very incomplete Freedom of Information Act release. Among hundreds of blank pages of redacted materials (about this 40-year old problem threatening our health...something still is held secret??) there was a couple of great interest.

Of very special note is the fact Air Force scientists were faced with tests taken over decades and needing to determine from them, dioxin levels on surfaces decades before the first tests were taken. There were no tests taken in 1971-72 as the aircraft were delivered to our squadrons, but the first comprehensive test was in 1994 and then on other aircraft in 2009.

Air Force staff wrote that the amount of dioxin present wouldn't correlate to actual exposures, but still the more dioxin, the greater the exposures.They had three ways to look at the numbers, and chose the most conservative, an approach which minimized the threat to veterans rather than considered the maximum danger.  Acknowledged was the fact that this could only be considered speculative...not the thought process, but the "guess" as to whether the actual 1971 exposures posed a greater threat or not. They guessed not. And they were wrong and it hurt us.

Their guess selected a model which assumed no or minimal degradation. That led to a minimal threat assessment to the veterans for their exposures aboard the aircraft between 1972-1982, and thus VA refusal of disability claims for Agent Orange exposures.

The importance: the estimates vary from extremely alarming (46,666 ng/m2) in 1971 to just 3493 ng/m2.

The AF guess as to which model to use went with the lower number because it implied a much lower threat of actual exposure. The difference in these two approaches is huge...the Air Force selected a model which minimized the threat by 1300% and led to inappropriately conservative and thus misleading conclusions in the final report. Previously, a threat assessment always errored on the safe side, not a guess which pretended no harm done.

And there were two other significant errors:
1. AF misstated the half-life of dioxin as only 2.75 years which it is much more on most surfaces
2. AF failed to calculate the effect of the 1972-1982 base-level attempts to physically scrape residues from the aircraft which reduced the contamination greatly before the first 1994 tests, themselves taken twelve years after the aircraft retired. This is an unknown but significant factor, but skilled mechanics spent hundreds of hours scraping every possible surface to reduce the contamination.

Final observation about the Air Force C-123 FOIA results. They withheld everything, releasing only hundreds of pages of blank paper, so there is no real way to assess how the study was done, why General Green was communicating with the Veterans Administration, etc.

As for the actual report, vs. the released conclusion, only the tantalizing table of contents was released.

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