Thursday, July 31, 2008

Learning to See the Problem

When I was a youngster, I wanted to be a famous military commander and wage historic battles around the world. The first war I participated in was so questionable, however, I decided to get out of the war-making business and take up a more socially useful line of work. Like Mark Twain and other authors I admired, I decided to wage war on outrageous behavior, by shining light in dark corners of daily life.

It took me awhile, however, to master the craft of writing anything worth reading. A big step was becoming a newspaper reporter and recording other people’s concerns. That’s how I happened to start writing about environmental issues. One of the most outrageous issues I heard about, while still learning how to be a journalist, was a worry by many Vietnam veterans that Agent Orange and other chemical herbicides used in war zones to kill jungle vegetation may have endangered their health and that of their children.

Agent Orange is a now classic example of unintended consequences—how using a toxic substance as a weapon in a distant war can boomerang as a danger at home. But in the 1970s, when I first encountered it, it was a daunting issue. I had no idea where to find out the truth of the matter. I didn’t recall anything about the spraying operations when I was in Vietnam. But I remembered reading Silent Spring while at a stateside training base and wondering if the herbicides and insecticides Rachel Carson warned about were the same chemicals listed in military chemical warfare manuals. What I learned from investigating the Agent Orange issue years later was to carefully listen to people with personal concerns for their health and dig for answers to their questions.

As I wrote in a newspaper opinion piece summarizing what was known and still unknown about this issue (“Troubling Questions About Dioxin,” New York Times, 6/11/83): “When health questions about Agent Orange first arose in the late 1960s, the focus was on new laboratory studies showing increased rates of cancer, birth defects and deaths among test animals exposed to ingredients of the herbicide. This news appeared after reports of birth defects, serious illnesses and deaths among Vietnamese … exposed to herbicide spray.

“Incredibly, no one at the time—not in the Federal Government, not from the environmental groups, not from the press—asked about the possible health consequences for G.I.’s. Nearly a decade passed before Vietnam veterans began to discover that question for themselves.” And that was largely because a Veterans Administration caseworker in Chicago noticed a pattern of illness among many veterans who served in Vietnam and questioned whether they might have been poisoned by herbicides used in the war. When she took her concerns to the news media in 1978, it hit home for a lot of veterans who had been diagnosed with cancer or rare skin disorders.

While VA officials were telling veterans there was nothing to worry about, citing government reports, the US Environmental Protection Agency issued an emergency ban on almost all domestic uses of the Agent Orange component that contained dioxin. These herbicides had been used for decades to kill weeds in farm fields, along utility lines and in people’s lawns. EPA pointed to lab studies that linked dioxin to higher levels of cancer and birth defects in test animals. Frustrated veterans did their own research and found reports in industrial medical journals of workers at plants that made ingredients of Agent Orange getting a distinctive skin rash called chloracne. So did they have the same skin condition, they demanded to know. Veterans and their families compared health notes and found that many of their children had a birth defect called spina bifida. Was this caused by exposure to dioxin?

The newspaper I worked for at the time, the Morristown (NJ) Daily Record, ran a series of articles I wrote with another reporter, Igor Bobrowsky, that profiled local veterans or their widows, examined their health problems and what was known about a wide array of hazardous chemicals used in Vietnam, interviewed veterans’ advocates across the country, and pressed government officials for answers. “Did Agent Orange poison Vietnam veterans?” was a typical way we posed the questions. “Nearly three years after the federal government announced a massive effort to find out, the answer seems as elusive as ever,” is how we reported what was happening. Quoting various scientists, our reporting pointed to the specific studies that needed to be done.

To help get answers, New Jersey created an Agent Orange study commission, which found that—contrary to federal government assertions—dioxin could be found in many Vietnam veterans’ bodies years after they returned from the war. Other studies by various agencies and independent researchers focused on answering the questions about cancer and birth defects. As results of studies in the US and previous studies in Europe piled up, Congress in the early 1990s mandated that the VA treat or pay compensation to Vietnam veterans for a number of cancers—and their children with spina bifida.

But it was already too late for many veterans. As I reported in 1980 from my research, Vietnam veterans in suburban Morris County, NJ, were dying of cancer at a rate nearly three times the national average for young men in their 20s and early 30s. It was a sobering spot check, as no agency at the time was keeping track of the cause of veterans’ deaths on a national level. Across the nation, these deaths hit hard in unexpected places. “Elmo R. Zumwalt 3d, son of the admiral who ordered the spraying of Agent Orange in Vietnam, and who was exposed to the defoliant himself, died of cancer today at his home. He was 42 years old,” The New York Times reported in August 1988.

“In an article published in The New York Times Magazine on Aug. 24, 1986,” the obituary added, “the younger Mr. Zumwalt said: 'I am a lawyer and I don't think I could prove in court, by the weight of the existing scientific evidence, that Agent Orange is the cause of all the medical problems - nervous disorders, cancer and skin problems - reported by Vietnam veterans, or of their children's severe birth defects. But I am convinced that it is.’”

Admiral Zumwalt took a closer look at the available studies and concluded, in a 1990 report to the VA, that there was sufficient evidence to link various cancers and birth defects with dioxin. But, he added, this information had been deliberately concealed from Congress and the public. “Unfortunately, political interference in government sponsored studies associated with Agent orange has been the norm, not the exception. In fact, there appears to have been a systematic effort to suppress critical data or alter results to meet preconceived notions of what alleged scientific studies were meant to find,” Zumwalt noted.

Zumwalt put his finger on the problem stemming from a military tactic he and others had used to kill vegetation that could conceal enemy troops and heralded a larger danger that potentially affected anyone exposed to these chemicals. “The flawed scientific studies and manipulated conclusions are not only unduly denying justice to Vietnam veterans suffering from exposure to Agent Orange," Zumwalt said in a quote circulated in a US Veterans Dispatch report in November 1990. "They are now standing in the way of a full disclosure to the American people of the likely health effects of exposure to toxic dioxins."

Revelations about this secretive government program continue surfacing. “Years later, a sad and fitting epitaph for the Agent Orange saga would come from James Clary, an Air Force scientist and author of the official history of Operation Ranch Hand, in a statement to Senator Tom Daschle: ‘When we initiated the herbicide program in the 1960s we were well aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide. We were even aware that the military formulation had a higher dioxin concentration than the civilian version, due to the lower cost and the speed of manufacture. However, because the material was to be used on the enemy, none of us were overly concerned,’” a Vietnam veteran’s son, Ben Quick, wrote in the March/April 2008 issue of Orion magazine (“Agent Orange: A Chapter from History that Just Won’t End”).

“My father returned to the Midwest after his tour in the jungles of Vietnam accompanied by a dehumanizing terror,” Quick wrote. “But along with the images and the guilt was something more tangible, a rash that covered his back, raised hivelike splotches that didn’t go away for five years—until I was nearly three. The name for this rash is chloracne; its cause, prolonged exposure to herbicides.”

Ben Quick was born with a deformed left hand. “I know how lucky I am—that things could be much worse,” he wrote. “I’ve seen the pictures of the Vietnamese tending the earth after the fire. The parents who cut and burned the trunks of leafless trees to keep their children warm in winter. The beautiful young girls with jet black hair and loose blouses trimming grass for baskets. The peasants planting saplings in barren ground.

“And I’ve seen the photos of jars filled with the stillborn at the Tu Du hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. Babies born with two faces and three ears. Dead babies with limbs like ropes, long, slender, twisted like pale pretzels in formaldehyde. Siamese twins with melting heads, gathered in a lovers’ tangle, the lips of one pressed to the neck of the other in the softest kiss. Shelves full of pickle jars holding the rawest fruit.

“And the living, the children of the damned.”

As the Agent Orange saga reveals, before there can be a solution, people first have to acknowledge the problem. There’s plenty for everyone to do, at every level of society, to ask questions, dig out and share facts, and press for appropriate actions.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Leaving a Future

If I had my life to do over, there are things I'd do differently. Let's start with the meadow in this photo, taken this summer behind my parents' place in upstate New York. The boy with two horses pulling a simple rig cutting wildflowers and grasses for hay would have been a familar sight to my grandparents and generations before them. When I was a boy, that field to me was a battleground, like something at Gettysburg or Normandy or Korea, where I played war with neighborhood kids. If a modern battle took place there, that meadow would be a dangerous place to farm, spiked with landmines, unexploded grenades, bombs, artillery rounds and toxic substances such as Agent Orange, napalm, depleted uranium.

That is not a legacy any responsible person would wish on their backyard or their nation. So, if I knew what I know now, I'd have given more thought to the future of that farm field and woods and refrained from dropping out of college to join the Army and charge off to war in Vietnam. The New York State College of Forestry, where I was so bored as a student, could have provided a good grounding for addressing what is now the greatest challenge of my lifetime--saving the world from the toxic waste of our throw-away age. But it's never too late to learn.