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Whitewashing Agent Orange

Issue: 49 Section: Canadian News Geography: Atlantic New Brunswick

August 11, 2007

Whitewashing Agent Orange

Green Party Leader decries CANTOX Report

by Chris Arsenault

A child with no eyes in Vietnam, a problem believed to be caused by early exposure to Agent Orange.

Photo: Chris Arsenault

The leader of Canada's Green Party is accusing consulting firm CANTOX Environmental of “whitewashing a major health scandal” after the firm released a report on the effects of Agent Orange spraying at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown.

“The so-called health risk assessment released on June 21 is not useful as a guide to governmental responsibilities to compensate workers and bystanders,” said Elizabeth May in a July press release.

The report by CANTOX is part of the ongoing CFB Gagetown fact-finding initiative, a federally funded project hoping to determine the health risks of chemicals sprayed at the base.

While some facts about chemical spraying are still unknown, it is public information that the Canadian military sprayed 6,504 barrels (1,328,767 litres) of chemical defoliants on 181,038 acres of Base Gagetown between 1956 and 1984. These chemicals included Agent Orange, Agent White and the extremely toxic Agent Purple.

On June 21 of this year, CANTOX Environmental concluded that people who lived or worked at CFB Gagetown, including most soldiers, were not at risk for long-term health effects from the active ingredients in herbicide applications.

The Green Party leader and some veterans say CANTOX's findings are not to be trusted. The company “has a reputation of never finding a risk when conducting health risk assessments,” said Elizabeth May.

According to May, “CANTOX found no risk in an area near the coke ovens site in Sydney that later was found to have arsenic levels high enough to be an acute health hazard. CANTOX ruled no risk to health in expanding the St. John Irving refinery and no risk in adding caffeine to children’s soda pop.”

The goal of CANTOX's June 21 report was to determine if exposure to the active ingredients in the herbicides used at CFB Gagetown from 1952 to the present day may have posed any potential risks to human health.

The potential for groundwater contamination from Agent Orange was excluded from CANTOX's study. For veterans and people who live near the base, this is a major cause of concern.

“There are 65 lakes and 251 streams on the base, all the residue of which runs into the St. John River and our well water,” said Gloria Paul, a retired nurse whose property borders CFB Gagetown. Unhappy with omissions in the fact-finding process, Paul wants to test her own water for chemical poisons, but “it costs $900 for one well test.”

The most comprehensive recent research on the long-term effects of Agent Orange contamination was conducted in Vietnam by Hatfield Consultants, a Canadian company. “We did a number of soil samples and followed [chemicals comprising Agent Orange] through the food chain into ponds, fish and then into humans,” said Dr. Wayne Dwernychuck, a lead researcher from Hatfield Consultants.

The recent CANTOX study didn't look for Agent Orange in fish or other animal life.

According to Elizabeth May, “CANTOX assumed a rapid rate of decomposition in the environment, essentially assuming that each year’s dose of herbicides had vanished from the environment before the next year’s spray program.”

This aspect of CANTOX's research methodology is problematic because, based on the findings of Hatfield Consultants, Agent Orange stays in ecosystems for long periods. “We found [Agent Orange] in children who had been born long after the [Vietnam] war ended,” said Dr. Dwernychuck, who concluded that the children were sick because of water, food and other substances poisoned with Agent Orange decades before they were born.

Some suggest that CANTOX has a conflict of interest when it comes to studying Agent Orange contamination.

More than 20 years ago, one of CANTOX’s founders, Dr. Len Ritter, was personally responsible as a civil servant for providing advice to the federal government that 2,4,5-T (a component of Agent Orange now banned in Canada) was safe when the US banned it.

The general attitude of the Canadian government when it comes to veterans who say they were poisoned by the chemicals officials once told them were “safe enough to drink” is markedly different from how the British and Americans have dealt with the issue.

In April, the British government awarded a special pension to Keith Pilmoor, a British solider from Bradford who said he was exposed to the defoliant sprayed at CFB Gagetown in 1966 and was sick for decades afterward.

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs compensates American service members who may have been exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam war.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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