Air Force Reservists Exposed to Agent Orange: Report

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FRIDAY, Jan. 9, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- U.S. Air Force reservists working in aircraft years after the planes had been used to spray the defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War could have experienced "adverse health effects," according to an Institute of Medicine report released Friday.

After being used to spray the herbicide during the war, 24 C-123 aircraft were transferred to the fleets of four U.S. Air Force reserve units for military airlifts, and medical and cargo transport, the institute reported.

From 1972 to 1982, between 1,500 and 2,100 Air Force reservists trained and worked aboard the aircraft. After learning that the planes had been used to spray Agent Orange, some of the reservists applied to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for health care compensation under the Agent Orange Act of 1991.

Agent Orange was widely used during the Vietnam War to clear foliage in the jungle. It contained a known carcinogen called dioxin, and has been linked to a wide range of cancers and other diseases.

The VA said the reservists were ineligible for coverage because the health care and disability compensation program covered only military personnel exposed to Agent Orange during "boots on the ground" service in Vietnam.

However, the reservists said some air and surface samples taken from the C-123s between 1979 and 2009 showed the presence of Agent Orange, and continued to pursue the case. The VA asked the Institute of Medicine to determine whether working in the aircraft could have posed a threat to the reservists' health. The institute wasn't asked to make any recommendations on the reservists' eligibility for coverage under the Agent Orange Act.

The Institute of Medicine is an independent, nonprofit organization that provides unbiased advice to decision-makers and the public.

In its report, the institute said the reservists could have had some exposure to Agent Orange's toxic chemical component TCDD, and that some reservists' exposure could have been higher than the guidelines for workers in enclosed settings.

"Detection of TCDD so long after the Air Force reservists worked in the aircraft means that the levels at the time of their exposure would have been at least as high as the taken measurements, and quite possibly, considerably higher," committee chair Robert Herrick, a senior lecturer on occupational hygiene at the Harvard School of Public Health, said in an institute news release.

More information

The American Cancer Society has more about Agent Orange.