Veterans Continue to Lead by Example and Sacrifice: The ‘Invisible’ Injuries of the Vietnam and Gulf War Veterans

November 11th, 2010

Pesticides.

Yes, that is a recurring theme on this blog because, as even the CDC has remarked, pesticides are ubiquitous in our environment. There is no escaping exposures to these toxic chemicals despite the body of laws contained in the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act ( FIFRA), supposedly governing their use. No one can take that act seriously, if you look at the history of our modern veterans, terribly damaged from pesticides and herbicides.

The full truth of that damage continues to be denied while we supposedly ‘honor’ our heroes of wars past and present, all exposed to intensive amounts and combinations of these dangerous poisons. Who doesn’t know of ‘Agent Orange’? That era prompted decades of denial by the US government regarding the extent to which herbicides destroyed the health of so many Vietnam soldiers and the Vietnamese themselves. The Department of Veteran’s Affairs has only just gotten around to recognizing several more diseases stemming from such exposures, in addition to those recognized earlier. The term “earlier” is relative. It wasn’t until the 1990s that claims of injury from decades of use for this defoliant, in jungles and on crops, began to be compensated.

The Government Accounting Office (GAO) chided the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2004 for its inadequate review of the science pertaining to the enormous number of veterans sickened during this brief (1990 -1991) action in the Persian Gulf. With around 175,000 of those soldiers reporting illnesses related to their service, Veterans Affairs head Eric Shineski recently released new guidelines for ‘presumptive’ approval of requests for assistance with the resulting disabilities. Finally recognizing the need to acknowledge many impressive studies from diverse sources, the Institute of Medicine reviewed those which had been published since 2005. Interestingly, their summary specifically cited adverse effects of cholinesterase suppressing chemicals (as in a now-banned group of pesticides) as being implicated in the ‘multi-system’ illness typical of many veterans. The report leaves the door to future findings wide open, as scientists continue to scrutinize the many systemic changes chemicals can induce. Of course, pyrethroid pesticides were heavily used in the Gulf War. Uniforms were soaked in those pesticides and central nervous system damage has been documented when these are combined with exposures to chemicals inducing other biochemical changes. We have yet to see any governmental policies demonstrating that we’ve learned from studies of human exposures being used by governmental institutions in granting veterans benefits. Indeed, the EPA is out of compliance with FIFRA laws pertaining to the bio-monitoring of our use for these chemicals throughout the United States. Nearly every American is exposed, with pyrethroids now a staple of the pesticide industry.

If only pesticides were scrutinized before marketing and vendors were forbidden to tout the safety of their products to users.

Of course, service related disabilities have provided a new crop of clients for lawyers to reap since a 2006 ruling allowed those denied benefits to obtain counsel for appeals. A 2007 article in the ABA Journal (Law News) notes that there were lawyers who’d taken up to a thousand clients in pursuit of veterans benefits were ‘well-intentioned’ but inadequate to such a task.

No kidding.

The blind eye turned towards the misuse of pesticides is a war on our population. Only the multi-national corporations bent upon expanding the sale of farm chemicals to urban populations can benefit. There should be an entirely new industry devoted to the science of safe indoor pest control which has nothing to do with protecting crops and weed control. A new study just demonstrated how populations of malaria-carrying mosquitoes can be safely reduced without harmful insecticides. We should certainly be capable of managing our households from lesser hazards. The Department of Agriculture has responsibility for the investigation and enforcement of pesticide regulations outside of agricultural settings where regulations don’t respect the difference between indoor and outdoor settings in the degradation of chemicals or the degree to which airborne residues linger inside closed spaces. The incredible toll taken on our health care system alone in acute and chronic illnesses resulting from these differences is something we should learn from our Veterans. They have so much to teach us about common sense and prioritizing the importance of people over the tragic consequences of going to war for financial gain as in ‘oil’ or for reconstruction contracts for industries.

We can at least honor their sacrifices by progressing in our use of these wartime technologies. Let’s not forget that pesticides were invented for use as chemical warfare agents. That fact alone, should make it all the more apparent that we need to reconsider their use in our lives. Technology is merely a tool and therefore requires scientific wisdom to utilize it in all its forms.

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