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Vets suspect Agent Orange dangers passed down to kids

| Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2010

Bobbie and Philip Morris have never heard their daughter speak.

Born with diseases that baffled her doctors, Dara Rae Morris has lived for 37 years in silence. Mentally and physically challenged, she has three leaks in her heart.

"She doesn't say 'I love you' or 'Mom and Dad,' but she knows ..." Bobbie Morris said, her voice trailing off.

Dara Rae Morris spent the first 15 years of her life mostly hospitalized, undergoing open heart surgery and other procedures. During a hospital visit last fall, doctors found more leaks in her heart and told her parents they believe that fixing them would be too much for her to endure.

Bobbie and Philip Morris, a Vietnam veteran who was exposed to Agent Orange, a defoliant containing dioxin, were asked to prepare a living will for their daughter. They are among a growing number of parents connecting exposure to Agent Orange with the ailments affecting their children.

Dioxin exposure will be a key topic at a national leadership conference of Vietnam Veterans of America in Orlando, Fla., today through Saturday. The organization, which includes more than 50,000 members, will host town hall meetings on Agent Orange, starting in California, in October.

"There's not a lot of legislators out there who were around or involved in the Agent Orange Act (of 1991). Education is a high priority," said Alan Oates, chairman of the group's Agent Orange/Dioxin and Other Toxic Substances committee.

The 1991 act declared that veterans who served in Vietnam are presumed to have been exposed to dioxin-contaminated herbicide such as Agent Orange and any diseases the secretary of Veterans Affairs recognizes as associated with herbicide exposure are presumed to be service-related. The veterans are eligible for disability compensation.

The Air Force sprayed nearly 19 million gallons of herbicides in Vietnam between 1962 and 1971, including 11 million gallons of Agent Orange. Soldiers often reused the barrels to store water, or fashioned barbecue grills out of them for cooking.

"It was in the ground. It was in the water. It was in the food they ate," said Bobbie Morris, 60.

Philip Morris, 63, of Industry served in the Air Force at an air base in Korot, Thailand, from 1965 to 1968. As many as 15,000 barrels of Agent Orange were stored there, Bobbie Morris said.

The issue of exposure remains divisive 40 years after the war.

C. Bernie Good, a professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh and chief of the section on general internal medicine at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, said there is little credible research on a link between birth defects and dioxin exposure in men.

About 2.3 percent of all live births have a major birth defect, he said.

"With 2.6 million men (serving in Vietnam), there would be 52,000 to 78,000 babies born with birth defects even without exposure to Agent Orange," Good said.

Adverse effects from exposure to dioxins can include soft tissue sarcoma, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, Hodgkin's disease, type II diabetes and Parkinson's disease, according to the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences, which carries out congressionally mandated reviews of the evidence about the health effects of herbicides and dioxin every two years.

One leading expert on Agent Orange exposure, Arnold J. Schecter, professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Texas School of Public Health, said the link between the herbicide and health problems of subsequent generations is a weak one that needs research.

But health problems for veterans related to the exposure are likely, Schecter said.

"There has to be health problems with the amount of herbicides sprayed there," he said.

A leading lay expert on congenital defects related to Agent Orange said the science is not weak; it's "developing."

"We've found this pattern. It just won't go away," said Betty Mekdeci, executive director of Birth Defect Research for Children, of Celebration, Fla.

Many veterans aren't getting tested for Agent Orange exposure because the VA's test doesn't include screening for dioxin, the most deadly ingredient of the herbicide mix, Schecter said.

The test is expensive, requires a large amount of blood to sample and only about three labs in the world can produce reliable results, said Mekdeci, who developed a national birth defect registry. The tests can cost $1,200 to $1,500 each and require as much as 80 milliliters, or eight medium-sized cylinders of blood.

The health problems of children and grandchildren of Vietnam veterans are "something that's been very quiet for a long time. ... Now people are stepping forward," said Mokie Porter, editor of VVA Veteran, the magazine of Vietnam Veterans of America, which is documenting the effects of the war on second and third generations.

They include Kelly Derrick, 35, of Langhorn in Bucks County, who takes 20 medications each day and is under the care of 10 doctors.

"This is my life. ... I am sick every day," she said.

Her father, Air Force Master Sgt. Harry C. Mackel, was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam during the war. A decorated Philadelphia police officer who was wounded in the 1978 MOVE shootout, he died of cancer in 1982 at age 37.

"My father died for this country, even though he didn't die 'in country,' " Derrick said. "Our fathers are dead or are dying, and they are not getting the recognition they deserve."

About 34,000 soldiers from Allegheny County fought in Vietnam, said Ron Conley, the county's director of Veterans Services. Nationally, Vietnam vets, whose average age is 58, are dying at a rate of almost 300 a day, the Department of Veterans Affairs said.

Additional Information:

What is Agent Orange?

Agent Orange was made up of two weed killers in common commercial use at the time. One contained a contaminant called 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, or TCDD, known to be toxic in humans.

TCDD accumulates in human fatty tissue, where it is neither readily metabolized nor excreted, so its effects can linger and build over time.

Source: The National Organization on Disability

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