On January 9, 2015, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released its latest report relating to health effects of Agent Orange exposure. The IOM was tasked by the VA to study possible exposure to Agent Orange by Air Force reservists who worked on C-123 aircraft, which were used to spray Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. The C-123 aircraft were used by Air Force reservists between 1972 and 1982. These Air Force reservists have suffered the same adverse health effects as Vietnam veterans, yet their claims have been consistently denied by the VA because they were not “boots on the ground” and the VA did not believe that they could have been exposed to Agent Orange on the C-123 aircraft years after the planes were used to spray the chemical. Contrary to the VA’s position, the key findings of the IOM report are:
- The Air Force reservists would have experienced some exposure to chemicals from herbicide residue when working inside the C-123 aircraft.
- Surface levels at the time of the reservists’ exposure could not be extrapolated from the sampling measurements gathered long after the reservists had worked in the aircraft, but levels must have been at least as high as the available sampling results. [This means that because samples were not taken until many years later, it is not possible to determine the amount of the chemical that reservists were exposed to in service; however, the amount of chemicals in the aircraft at the time of service must have been at least as much as existed at the time samples were taken.]
- It is plausible that, at least in some cases (which cannot be associated with specific individuals), the reservists’ exposure exceeded health guidelines for workers in enclosed settings. Thus, some reservists quite likely experienced non-trivial increases in their risks of adverse health outcomes.
In simplest terms, these key findings mean that the IOM found sufficient evidence to support the contention that Air Force reservists could have been exposed to Agent Orange while working inside the C-123 aircraft. This should be good news for veterans who are seeking disability compensation related to such exposure, but it is still too early to tell how the VA will react to the IOM report. In fact, the VA’s website states that it has “assembled a group of clinical and other subject matter experts to review and respond to the report.” The website does explicitly state that “veterans may file a claim for disability compensation for health problems they believe are related to exposure to Agent Orange on post-Vietnam C-123 airplanes,” but it remains to be seen how the VA will treat these claims as they move through the system, including what sort of evidence will be required to prove exposure.