Veterans and descendents live with effects of chemical warfare

Published on Wed, Jul 23, 2014 by Ian Ferguson

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Forty years after American military personnel were exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, veterans and their offspring are still experiencing medical conditions that studies have increasingly linked to the toxic herbicide.

A town hall meeting organized by the local chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) and Disabled American Veterans (DAV) will inform local veterans and their families of the latest research and efforts to secure medical benefits for families who have suffered due to exposure to toxins during military service. The meeting, called “The Faces of Agent Orange,” will be held in Bellingham on September 19.

During the Vietnam War, the American military sprayed approximately 20 million gallons of toxic herbicides, including Agent Orange, to destroy enemy crops and vegetation. 

A combination of two herbicides, Agent Orange is highly toxic on its own, but the way it was manufactured allowed trace amounts of a dioxin called TCDD, the most toxic chemical in its class, to be present in the final product. Yale biologist Arthur Galston concluded that a concentration as low as five parts per trillion – roughly equivalent to one drop in four million gallons of water – was enough to cause cancer in rats.

American veterans were exposed to high amounts of dioxins and other toxins in Vietnam, and the exposure has been linked to various medical conditions including type II diabetes, heart conditions and multiple types of cancers. The federal government now recognizes 68 medical conditions that, when found in a veteran of the Vietnam War, are presumed to have been caused by that veteran’s service. Veterans are eligible for benefits to help manage those conditions.

While the government has begun to cover the medical services of exposed veterans, new studies are showing that descendents of veterans might be affected as well. The VVA has begun a campaign to research the medical conditions suffered by the descendents of those exposed to Agent Orange and other toxins during military service. A bill to provide medical services for afflicted descendents is working its way through Congress.

Gene Goldsmith, president of the Whatcom County chapter of the VVA, said veterans of more recent wars are also exposed to chemicals that could have long-lasting repercussions.

“Veterans of modern wars used some of the same equipment that was used during Vietnam, and that equipment is still contaminated,” Goldsmith said. “Modern-day veterans have also been exposed to dioxin from tire burning and depleted uranium ammunition during service, and we want them to be included in the conversation.”

The town hall meeting is an attempt to reach out to all affected veterans and their families in Whatcom and Skagit counties, connect them with health practitioners and disability-related service agencies and build support for more research and legislative bills to help with compensation. 

Nancy Switzer, the founder and past president of the Association of Vietnam Veterans, will be a guest speaker at the event. The meeting is being coordinated with Vietnam Veterans in Canada Chapter 75, as a number of Canadian veterans were exposed to Agent Orange.

“While many Americans moved to Canada to avoid the war, a number of Canadians went the other way to join the American effort in the war, so this meeting will be the first international town hall meeting to help inform Canadian veterans,” Goldsmith said.

The Faces of Agent Orange town hall meeting will be held on Friday, September 19 from 1 to 5 p.m. at the HEC Conference Center, 3333 Squalicum Parkway in Bellingham.