What you missed at BRAINet: Post-Vietnam aircraft contamination effects on personnel

Fred Berman

Dr. Fred Berman, DVM and Ph.D.

Our Brain Research Awareness and Information Network (BRAINet) is a volunteer outreach organization of the OHSU Brain Institute. Each month, an OHSU clinician or researcher presents a lecture to members on a new brain-related topic. Our goal is to foster awareness and support for neuroscience research.

This September, we had the privilege of hearing from Fred Berman, D.V.M. Ph.D., who heads the Toxicology Information Center  within the Oregon Institute of Occupational Health Sciences at OHSU. ~Julie Branford, President of BRAINet

The focus of Dr. Berman’s lecture centered on the story of Air Force General Wesley Carter, who had shared with Berman the details of airplanes used by the Air Force Reserve after the war in Vietnam. Thirty-four U.S. Air Force MC-123 aircraft, used in Vietnam from 1961-71, had carried herbicides and insecticides used to defoliate the jungles of Vietnam. They were then returned to the United States for the Air Force Reserve to use from 1971-82. Many of the pilots and mechanics who flew the planes in the United States became ill with diseases such as leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and cancers of the larynx, lungs, and prostate.

Berman was then asked to investigate the connection between the planes and the personnel associated with them. What he discovered was that the planes were scrubbed by hand with dish soap after the planes returned to the United States. Nine years after their use in Vietnam, the planes had high levels of the toxins still clinging to the insides of the planes.

MC-123 Aircraft "Patches"

“Patches” came back to the U.S. in 1972, and served in the Air Force Reserve as a C-123K until it was retired to the National Museum of the United States Air Force in 1980. (U.S. Air Force photo)

One such plane, Patches, was finally retired to the U.S. Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio and was deemed so highly contaminated that no one was allowed near it.

Incredibly, many of the U.S. personnel who flew or maintained these planes were denied medical coverage or benefits because they “did not have boots on the ground in Vietnam.” The exposures have been carried through to these men and women’s children and grandchildren.

Post-Vietnam aircraft contamination remains an open issue in Washington D.C. Berman’s paper, “Post-Vietnam Military Herbicide Exposures in UC-123 Agent Orange Spray Aircraft,” recommends that the Department of Defense use honest, unbiased scientific information when determining whether Air Force personnel should receive benefits or not.

Dioxins are still an issue today, even in our day-to-day lives. Toxins from forest fire sprays and in pulp and paper manufacturing make their way into our homes. Other recommendations from Berman:

  • Heat your food in glass containers when using the microwave.
  • Stay away from Bisphenol A — more commonly know as BPA — which can be found in some plastics, certain electronic cash register receipts, and canned food liners.

Interested in learning more about BRAINet or other brain education activities? Visit BRAINet online or email us at orbrains@ohsu.edu for more information.

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  1. How does one determine if he/she worked on one of these contaminated aircraft? I know that I did not keep a detailed record of tail numbers from the aircraft I worked on. Both my husband and I did aircraft maintainence in the USAF. I’m pretty sure C-141s did not drop this stuff, but could they have carried the cargo? Is there a trustworthy web site or office to go to?

  2. Thank you for your question. This has been an issue, even for those who flew UC-123 aircraft after Viet Nam, inasmuch as Air Force records appear to be incomplete. What we do know is that ~50% of the UC-123 aircraft used post-Viet Nam had seen use in Operation Ranch Hand. Regarding other types of aircraft, there is no issue with exposure to Agent Orange as far as I know. If you had worked on the UC-123, you may be able access the information you seek at the following URL: http://c123kcancer.blogspot.com

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