Advocates of Gulf War syndrome argue that the government shouldn’t repeat the Agent Orange experience. They say that the government bungled Agent Orange investigations for years but that “science” finally proved that veterans’ claims of Agent Orange‐caused deaths, diseases and birth defects were real.
The advocates interpret the science incorrectly. The Agent Orange saga was a clear case of politics’ twisting science, and it indicates that Gulf War syndrome should be treated as a political issue and settled politically without dragging science into a debate in which it will be overruled and dismissed.
Like Gulf War syndrome, “Agent Orange diseases” began with veterans’ reports. Veterans dying from cancers appeared on television and blamed Agent Orange; reporters tracked down veterans’ children with birth defects and blamed Agent Orange. There was no evidence that the veterans had ever been exposed to Agent Orange, and cancers and birth defects occur everyday in people who were never exposed. Blaming was enough; it wasn’t necessary to show any connection.
With the press on their side, the veterans pressed their claims before Congress. Congress decided that there was not enough evidence to decide whether Agent Orange was to blame; in 1979, it ordered studies of Vietnam veterans’ health.
The Centers for Disease Control did the studies. CDC reported that mortality rates, disease rates and the frequency of birth defects in veterans’ children were comparable for men who did and did not serve in Vietnam. CDC also found that few, if any, ground troops in Vietnam had been exposed to Agent Orange.
The Air Force’s Operation Ranch Hand sprayed 90 percent of the Agent Orange used in Vietnam. There is no difference in the health of the Ranch Hands, the only veterans known to have been exposed, and that of other veterans who served in Southeast Asia at the same time and flew the same kinds of airplanes but were not exposed to Agent Orange.