Brian Bowling, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, September 20, 2006
Bob Eiler, past commander of Pennsylvania VFW, has cancer from exposure to Agent Purple in Vietnam. Joe Appel/Tribune-Review
An herbicide that protected Bob Eiler as an 18-year-old soldier also likely gave the 63-year-old veteran prostate and bone cancer.
An Army sergeant and military adviser in Laos and Vietnam from 1961-63, Eiler used Agent Purple — a variant of the infamous Agent Orange — to clear vegetation around artillery and command positions so enemy troops couldn’t use plants to cover their movements.
“You would spray the compound one day, and everything would be dead in 24 hours,” the Moon resident said.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has linked Eiler’s cancer to the herbicide. The VA began paying medical benefits related to Agent Orange exposure in 1981 and began paying for cancer treatment related to the herbicide in the 1990s.
When he was diagnosed six years ago, Eiler was added to a 24-year federal health study — scheduled to end this month — of how Agent Orange and other herbicides have affected 1,000 pilots, airmen and soldiers who handled the defoliants as part of “Operation Ranch Hand.” The air crews sprayed about 19 million gallons of herbicide across at least 4 million acres of South Vietnam between 1962 and 1971.
The $143 million study confirmed that veterans exposed to the dioxin-contaminated herbicides are more likely to develop diabetes mellitus and that their children are more likely to be born with spina bifida.
Dr. David Tollerud, chairman of a National Academy of Sciences committee who reviewed the study, said the panel didn’t recommend continuing it because collecting more information and samples from the Ranch Hand veterans probably wouldn’t generate useful new data.
“The problem with the Ranch Hand study is that it is too small a population to look for conditions like cancer,” Tollerud said.
Dan Volz, scientific director for the University of Pittsburgh Center for Healthy Environments and Communities, worked on some of the original Agent Orange studies in the 1970s and ’80s. He said the government should continue collecting data on the Ranch Hand veterans at least as long as any of the veterans are alive.
“The jury is never in until the (study) cohort is gone,” he said.
With evidence that dioxin’s effects carry on into the next generation, the study should continue tracking the descendants’ health even after the veterans are dead, Volz said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency started regulating dioxins in the 1980s after studies linked the family of 30 chemical compounds to health problems.
Tollerud, chairman of environmental and occupational health sciences for the University of Louisville School of Public Health and Information Sciences, was vice chairman of the first federal committee that reviewed more than 230 studies and determined in 1993 that Agent Orange was linked to three cancers as well as skin and liver disorders. Other reviews have since confirmed links to dozens more cancers as well as some nerve disorders.
No one at the time expected the herbicides to harm the soldiers, he said.
“All the information I have seen is that the military — and the scientific community involved in advising the military — thought these were very safe compounds,” Tollerud said.
Eiler said the Army told soldiers that the potent herbicides were harmless to humans — that they could even take a swim in them without getting ill.
“We used the empty barrels to catch rainwater to drink. I think that’s why I’ve got it so bad,” Eiler said. “When you’re 18 years old, why would you argue? It was the only thing we had to catch rainwater.”
Tollerud said most of the health problems come from dioxin that ended up in the herbicides when chemical manufacturers let quality controls slip as they ramped up production to meet government orders.
“It was a complete accident,” Tollerud said.
Brian Bowling can be reached at email@example.com or (412) 320-7910.