A $73 million epidemiological study of Agent Orange has been undertaken by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on Vietnam Veterans. In order for the veterans to press for compensation, they must prove that a link exists between their exposure to Agent Orange and the health problems that they, and their children, have experienced since their return from Vietnam.
Incredibly, not one of the estimated 17,000 women who served in Vietnam as members of the military or as civilians employed by service organizations such as the Red Cross are being interviewed or examined as part of the multi-million dollar study. This is despite the fact that some women now say they are experiencing health problems that they believe may be associated with Agent Orange, including birth defects among their children.
Agent Orange, comprised of 2,4,5-T and other chemicals that were contaminated with dioxin, a highly toxic chemical that causes cancer and birth defects in laboratory animals, is suspected of causing a host of illnesses among humans who were exposed to it. Between 1965 and 1970, more than 11 million gallons were sprayed on Vietnam, ravaging the countryside and affecting all those who came in contact with it.
In 1979, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) based its decision to ban the use of 2,4,5-T in this country on a controversial study which demonstrated an alarming incidence of miscarriages among women living near lands sprayed with the chemical in Oregon.
A 1983 symposium on Agent Orange conducted in Vietnam showed health problems among Vietnamese women and their offspring. It also showed sharp increases in spontaneous miscarriages and cancer in females who were exposed to Agent Orange and an increase in birth defects among their offspring. The U.S. government has refuted this research, despite the lack of evidence to back up its position.
Many women say that the reason they were left out of the new study is of a political nature. They are fewer in numbers than the estimated 2.8 million men who served in Vietnam, and therefore lack the political clout that is necessary to bring about some change. Linda Van Devanter, former national women’s director of the Vietnam Veterans of America, charged that women were left out of the studies because government officials “just didn’t think about them, and if they did, they thought … nobody is going to make a stink” about the oversight.
The press should not compound this oversight by ignoring this story. It is time for the government to recognize its responsibility to everyone who served the U.S. in Vietnam. Sexual discrimination of this sort will only cause further harm and continue to divide our society. Further, if Agent orange doesn’t discriminate among its victims, why should the government?
COMMON CAUSE, November/December 1984, “Vietnam Aftermath: The Untold Story of Women and Agent Orange,” by Patricia Theiler, pp 28-34.