Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

A War's Toxic Legacy

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

A War's Toxic Legacy

Article excerpt

Long after the Vietnam War ended, the toxic trail left by dioxin- laced Agent Orange stretches from Newark, where herbicides were manufactured for the military in a way that created a long-lasting contaminant, to Southeast Asia.

IN THE SEASIDE city of Da Nang, Vietnam, a cleanup is underway to remove dioxin-contaminated soil at a former U.S. military air base. Some 8,500 miles to the east, another cleanup is underway to remove dioxin hot spots along the Passaic River in Newark and upstream, where tides and floods have washed the worrisome stuff into a Bergen County park in Lyndhurst.

Long after the Vietnam War ended, the toxic trail left by dioxin- laced Agent Orange stretches from Newark, where herbicides were manufactured for the military in a way that created a long-lasting contaminant, to Southeast Asia - where millions of gallons of the supersized plant-killer were sprayed on jungles, mangrove swamps, military bases and airfield perimeters during a decade of war starting in 1962.

Unveiled by the Internet's astounding accumulation of news and government reports, the toxic trail of testing, transporting and trying out these chemicals - which were made in New Jersey, Michigan, West Virginia, Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas - further extends to South Korea, Australia, Canada, Guam, Panama, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Mississippi, Florida, Maryland, New York and many other states.

This alarming drumbeat of news reports began in the late 1960s, as the chemical spray operations aimed at exposing enemy ambush sites and supply routes in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand set off rising waves of concern about rashes of health problems among Vietnamese villagers.

The herbicide spraying on the other side of the world 40 years ago still reverberates here at home, especially among Vietnam veterans.

"They sell huge shrimp in stores here - check the package to see where it's from. They grow shrimp in bomb craters in Vietnam," says Jim Fallon, of Hoboken, who developed bone cancer in his right arm after serving as a U.S. Army medic in Vietnam.

Besides Vietnamese fish ponds, Fallon notes, fishing spots here at home are affected as well. In August, New Jersey officials issued an updated warning against eating blue claw crabs from the lower Passaic River and Newark Bay. A recent fishing advisory notes that in 2005, when the state sued chemical companies for dumping in the river, "dioxin concentrations in Passaic River crabs and fish were among the highest in the world."

"While some crabs may appear healthy, contaminants found in blue claw crabs and some fish pulled from these waters can be harmful to fetuses and infants," New Jersey's environmental protection and health agencies warned. "Women of child-bearing years, pregnant women and nursing mothers, in particular, are urged not to ingest these crabs from this region. Children are also at risk of developmental and neurological problems if these crabs are eaten."

Fallon, like many Vietnam veterans, has become acutely attuned to news about Agent Orange and dioxin - and the questions that arise with each lifting of the veils of secrecy that government officials long maintained regarding this issue.

"They were always telling us it was mosquito repellent," Fallon said of spraying operations when he was stationed at Long Binh military base from 1968 to 1969. "Every once in awhile, it had a different smell, a kerosene smell." One day, he went on a helicopter medevac mission to a forested area he had previously flown to. "It was dead - there wasn't a leaf on a tree," Fallon said.

He first learned of the potential consequences of exposure to these chemicals in 1990, Fallon recalled, when a doctor in New York treating him for complications from bone cancer, said "You know, this is from Agent Orange."

In 1991, after more than a decade of calls by veterans to investigate their health concerns, Congress passed legislation ordering a federal review of health studies regarding dioxin and that health care be provided to affected veterans. …

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