December 31, 2013

OUR OPINION: Maine veterans owed study on use of chemicals at Canadian base

Sens. Collins and King are right to call for a more thorough review.

Carroll Jandreau has kidney cancer, and he suspects he knows what caused it.

Over a period of six years in the 1960s, for two weeks at a time, the Fort Kent man trained with the Maine Army National Guard at a military base in New Brunswick. This was at a time when fields at the base were being sprayed with massive quantities of herbicides and defoliants — including a small amount of Agent Orange, which was widely used during the Vietnam War and has been linked to a host of health problems.

The U.S. government has denied that the herbicides sprayed at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown sickened Jandreau or his fellow veterans. But the federal study’s conclusions are based solely on a review of previous research. Maine’s two senators are calling for an independent study in a bill that could open the door to a more comprehensive review and answer questions that have lingered for far too long.

The Canadian and U.S. governments have rejected most disability claims filed by Gagetown veterans, other than those who served in 1966 or 1967, when Agent Orange was tested at the Canadian base. But 3 million pounds of herbicides and defoliants — some chemically similar to Agent Orange — were used at Gagetown over a 30-year period, according to military documents obtained by Canadian veterans through Freedom of Information requests. Given this history, it’s reasonable to theorize that exposure to toxins far exceeded what officials are willing to acknowledge.

But the federal study requested by Sen. Susan Collins last year didn’t examine conditions at Gagetown or look into veterans’ experiences or how they might be linked to exposure to Agent Orange or similar chemicals. Instead, the Centers for Disease Control, about a year ago, looked at Canadian researchers’ methodology and affirmed their 2007 report that found that the herbicides sprayed at Gagetown presented no public health threat.

This is not enough to address the Gagetown veterans’ wide-ranging concerns — they deserve an independent investigation that takes into account new studies and interviews with troops who trained at Gagetown. As well, a comprehensive registry will allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to keep track of all U.S. Gagetown veterans, watch for any patterns of ill health and provide these service members with the most up-to-date information about Gagetown chemical exposure and its possible effects.

Ailing Gagetown veterans obviously don’t feel that their voices have been heard: Jandreau, the Fort Kent man, said, “I feel they are waiting for all of us to pass away so they don’t have to do anything about it.”

If this bill passes, the VA will get a chance to prove that it is more invested than it has demonstrated so far.

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