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New Evidence That Agent Orange's Destruction Spread to Peacetime

Research finds that the poison lingered on miltary aircraft into the 1980s.
Image: Operation Ranch Hand/Wiki

Nearly 20 million gallons of Agent Orange were released over Vietnam between 1962 and 1971 as part of Operation Ranch Hand (motto: "Only you can prevent a forest") and its larger parent mission Operation Trail Dust. The powerful herbicide's purpose was to destroy foliage hiding Vietcong forces from view and to destroy civilian crops. But the side-effects of its use were even more dire, ranging from cancer to ravaging skin diseases. Both American forces and Vietnamese citizens and soldiers were plagued by the Agent Orange's health curse for rest of their lives, and it sometimes caused defects in the health of their children as well.

A new study published in the journal Environmental Research reveals that Air Force reservists were exposed to higher levels of the toxic chemical than previously known (or admitted). Many of the same aircraft that dispersed Agent Orange during the war were later used as transport vehicles during (relative) peacetime, primarily between the years 1971 and 1982. And tests taken many years after those transports show the planes still contained dangerous levels of the chemical. Initial testing of the planes after the war and before peacetime service was nonexistent.

The US Air Force and Department of Veterans Affairs have previously denied benefits to those exposed to the chemical from these planes, claiming it wasn’t a harmful level of exposure. Researchers have now proven this to be false. The study used the US Army's own algorithms and samples taken from the aircraft to estimate how much the post-war level of exposure would have affected the body, with the results demonstrating that the levels in those aircraft were unacceptable under USAF and VA policies.

"These findings are important because they describe a previously unrecognized source of exposure to dioxin that has health significance to those who engaged in the transport work using these aircraft," said lead investigator Peter A. Lurker. “Our models show that the level of exposure is likely to have exceeded several available exposure guidelines,” Jeanne Stellman, an Agent Orange expert at Columbia University, added. Veterans are automatically eligible for health benefits and disability if they were exposed to dangerous amounts of Agent Orange under the Agent Orange Act of 1991.