July 6, 2015 — Up to 2,100 Air Force reservists who may have been exposed to harmful levels of Agent Orange on contaminated cargo planes are now eligible for disability benefits from the Veterans Administration (VA). The VA announced its decision on June 18, 2015 after a VA-ordered report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM), issued in January, concluded that the reservists were likely exposed to unsafe levels of dioxin, the toxic chemical in Agent Orange.
“The VA has been dragging its feet on this for about five years,” said Robert Herrick, senior lecturer on industrial hygiene at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who chaired the IOM committee that issued the report. “It was a painful process, but in the end we were gratified with the results.”
During the Vietnam War, C-123 cargo planes were used to spray Agent Orange, a defoliant. Between 1972 and 1982, those planes were also used for stateside cargo and training missions. Until now, the VA has accepted Agent Orange-related disability claims only from those who served in Vietnam. The VA also previously claimed that the cargo planes had been decontaminated and that therefore the reservists couldn’t have been exposed.
But those who became sick after flying and working on the planes, as well as several senators and congressmen, had pushed in recent years to have the VA extend disability benefits.
An expert in the potential health impacts of occupational exposures, Herrick has been involved in previous IOM committees examining whether veterans were experiencing adverse health effects from Agent Orange.
“Over the years the VA has contracted with the IOM on a number of occasions to do these reviews,” Herrick said. “I think they feel that the IOM gives them the best objective evaluation they could possibly get.”
photo: U.S. Air Force