Agent Orange Charges Are Denied
Federal health officials Tuesday denied that political pressure from the Ronald Reagan White House resulted in their 1987 decision to cancel a major study of the health effects of Agent Orange on Vietnam veterans, insisting that military records were inadequate to verify the exposure of military personnel to the herbicide.
No one “ever attempted to put political influence on any of these Agent Orange studies,” said Dr. Vernon N. Houk, director of the Center for Environmental Health and Injury Control at the Atlanta-based federal Centers for Disease Control. “We concluded that a scientifically valid study of Agent Orange exposure could not be done based on military records.”
Panel Probing Study
His testimony was given to the House Government Operations Committee’s subcommittee on human resources and intergovernmental relations, which is conducting an investigation into whether political interference or scientific misconduct played a role in the decision to end the study.
The defoliant was widely used by U.S. forces in the jungles of Southeast Asia to destroy vegetation that served to hide enemy troops. Since then, many veterans have charged that Agent Orange, which contains the highly toxic substance dioxin, is responsible for a variety of ailments, including skin rashes, cancer and low sperm counts, and for birth defects in their offspring.
Subcommittee Chairman Ted Weiss (D-N.Y.) accused the CDC of bending to the will of Reagan Administration officials who, he said, opposed compensating veterans for the ailments and who used the CDC decision as a vehicle for denying their claims.
Political Interference Seen
“The decision to cancel the study smacks of political interference,” Weiss said. “It is time we learned exactly what happened and if, in fact, it is true that we will never be able to assess the exposure of Vietnam veterans to Agent Orange, if the CDC study was part of a concerted effort to cover up the truth about Agent Orange or if CDC was guilty of incompetence.”
Weiss cited an Oct. 28, 1987, memo from Dr. James O. Mason, then director of the CDC, saying that a White House task force on Agent Orange had ordered the study halted and had instructed the CDC “to begin the process of canceling the contracts and closing out all activities related to the . . . study.”
“Isn’t it true that it was the White House and not CDC that actually canceled the Agent Orange study?” Weiss asked.
“Absolutely untrue,” Houk replied.
Mason, currently an assistant secretary of the Health and Human Services Department, said Tuesday that “there was no political pressure brought on CDC to stop the study. The study was not done because it could not be scientifically done. It was a CDC decision.”
Richard Christian, former director of a Department of Defense environmental study group, told the subcommittee that there were “several collections of records that would provide information” for the CDC study and that the health agency “was wrong” in concluding that they were not sufficient.
“Did they listen to you?” Weiss asked.
“They did not,” Christian replied, adding: “The department wanted to do this study . . . . We could never understand why they had all these restrictions.”
Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, professor of community medicine and pediatrics at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, suggested that an Agent Orange study be sponsored and funded through the National Institutes of Health, rather than the CDC. Landrigan, who worked for 13 years at the CDC specializing in environmental hazards, said that--in light of several studies that have linked the defoliant to health problems--he believes that the CDC had not searched hard enough for data and that “surgery” was needed within the division responsible for the study.
The CDC, he said, should “give serious consideration to the possibility of digging further . . . . Suspicion abounds that CDC did not look deeply enough into the existing records . . . .”