Experts' opinions differ on risks posed by Agent Orange sprayed at Ritchie

February 21, 2011|By HEATHER KEELS |
  • In 1963, Agent Orange was sprayed on 108 small trees along a dirt road within Fort Ritchie, shown here Monday, using a vehicle with a mounted sprayer. The fort closed in 1998.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

CASCADE — Agent Orange testing at Fort Ritchie in the 1960s was conducted under controlled conditions using a diluted version of the herbicide and posed little risk to the surrounding community then or now, according to a scientist who has studied records of the testing.

“The orange formulation was a very concentrated formulation, but you can dilute it when you put it on the vegetation, and that’s what happened at Fort Ritchie,” Alvin L. Young, an environmental toxicologist who compiled a 2006 report on testing of tactical herbicides by the U.S. Department of Defense, said Monday.

The testing at Fort Ritchie was intended to help determine the lowest concentration needed to result in defoliation, or the dropping of leaves, Young said.

“Probably we’re talking about a couple gallons of material sprayed,” he said.

Agent Orange is a blend of herbicides that the U.S. military sprayed in Vietnam to remove foliage that provided cover for its enemy, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website. It contained minute traces of a compound known as dioxin, which has been shown to cause a variety of illnesses in laboratory animals, according to the VA website.

The testing of Agent Orange at Fort Ritchie recently was brought to the attention of those leading redevelopment efforts at the former U.S. Army base near Cascade as part of a court-ordered environmental review.

Reached by phone Monday at his Wyoming home, Young described details of the testing at Fort Ritchie that he learned from military records while compiling the 2006 report and another, not-yet-released report on the extent of potential exposure during tactical herbicide testing.

Both reports were compiled at the request of the Department of Veterans Affairs for use in evaluating the merits of veterans’ disability claims, Young said.

In July 1963, the Army Chemical Corps hosted a “defoliation conference” at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., at which major chemical companies were invited to synthesize new herbicidal compounds that Fort Detrick would test for potential military use, according to Young’s 2006 report.

Much of that testing occurred at Fort Detrick, but Fort Ritchie and Fort Meade, in Anne Arundel County, also were used because they had species of trees not available at Fort Detrick, Young said.

In 1963, members of the Army Chemical Corps from Fort Detrick sprayed Agent Orange on 108 small trees along a dirt road within Fort Ritchie using a vehicle with a mounted sprayer, Young said.

The trees were ash, elm and locust, according to his report.

The Chemical Corps got only initial observations from the test at Fort Ritchie because the base forester, apparently uninformed about the testing, cut down the trees before the team returned to check the results, Young said.

“The leaves had turned brown and he didn’t know what had done it,” Young said.

At the time, experimenters did not know about the dioxin contained in Agent Orange, but they nevertheless followed strict protocol to contain the experimental herbicides, he said.

The trees were in an isolated part of Fort Ritchie and the tests were conducted under conditions that would allow for minimal drift, because the experimenters did not want wind to carry the spray to agricultural crops outside the fort, Young said.

“It was a very safe experiment,” he said.

Young said he did not think there would have been any hazards to the experimenters or the community because the herbicide is absorbed quickly into the plant and dioxin breaks down within one to two hours when exposed to sunlight.

“You’d have to be right there when it was sprayed, or you’d have to wipe your hands across the leaves” to have been exposed to the chemical, Young said.

Richard Clapp, an epidemiologist who has studied Agent Orange and dioxin-related issues since 1980, was less ready to write off the risk.

Clapp is a professor emeritus at Boston University who has served as a consultant to the Environmental Protection Agency in its reassessment of dioxin and testified about Agent Orange in front of two committees of Congress, including the Committee on Veterans Affairs, which later passed the Agent Orange Act of 1991.

Clapp said that if the Agent Orange landed on soil and was left undisturbed, it would have degraded in sunlight as Young said.

“If there was cloudy conditions and rain either during or after the applications, either the dioxin or the herbicides could have been carried by water from rain into streams, or even into the silt right near, like a puddle, and been covered, and therefore not subject to degradation by sunlight,” Clapp said.

Dioxin in water, such as that from pulp and paper mills in Maine, has been shown to last for decades, he said.

For this reason, Clapp said he would recommend testing samples from around the area for traces of the toxin.

“It’s possible is all I’m saying,” Clapp said.

PenMar Development Corp. Chairman George G.B. Griffin said despite the inclusion of the Fort Ritchie field tests in Young’s 2006 report, the PenMar board did not learn of the testing until last week, when the Army provided a copy of that report to the redevelopment company, Corporate Office Properties Trust.

PenMar Development Corp. is a nonprofit organization created by the state to oversee the transition of Fort Ritchie to civilian uses.

The fort closed in 1998.

The redevelopment project was put on hold in late 2009 as a result of a 2005 lawsuit in which a judge ordered the Army to revisit its environmental review of the property.

The disclosure of herbicide testing at the site is expected to cause further delays in the litigation, according to a COPT press release.

Washington County Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham, who sits on the PenMar Development Corp. board, said once the legal action is resolved, she didn’t think the history of Agent Orange at the site would deter anyone from opening a business or living there.

“The most recent application, we’re looking ... 50 years ago, and I think what they’re going to find was the testing was so minor that there would not be any residuals any more than the amount of herbicide that’s being put on our golf courses and our front yards,” Callaham said.

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