Thursday, January 27, 2022

Agent Orange update, disability and VA health care, unemployment and more



Bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinsonism were added to the Agent Orange Presumptive List when the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act was passed. Veterans who previously filed and were denied claims involving these conditions will be eligible for VA disability benefits. The VA was ordered under the Defense Authorization Act to locate and contact the veterans who were denied their claims for these conditions so that appropriate reconsideration by the VA could be conducted. If you are a veteran whose disability claim for any of these three new presumptives was denied and the VA has not contacted you, please contact your VSO (preferably the VSO who assisted in the filing of the original claim) to take further action on your claim.


Are you a veteran who was denied VA health care because your income exceeded the means test for eligibility (your household income was above the VA income means test)? Medical conditions and their proven relationship with exposure change periodically as the VA gains more data. If you have been diagnosed with any medical condition or disease that has been determined to be caused by an exposure, you should file a claim for service-connected disability compensation regardless of how long you have been out of the military or how long ago you filed and were previously denied. If your claim is approved, this disability makes you eligible for VA health care and you should apply as soon as you get the approval of your disability claim.


A veteran who cannot work because of a disability related to their service in the military (a service-connected disability) may qualify for “individual unemployability.” Such a veteran may be able to get disability compensation or benefits at the same level as a veteran who has a 100% disability rating. If, 1) a veteran has at least one service-connected disability rated as 60% or more disabling, or 2) has two or more service-connected disabilities with at least one rated at 40% or more disabling and a combined rating of 70% or more AND the veteran cannot hold down a steady job that can support the veteran financially (known as substantially gainful employment) because of the service-connected disability.


House Approves Bill to Automatically Enroll Vets in VA Health Care


Eligible veterans would be automatically enrolled in the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system under a bill passed by the House on Thursday.

The House voted 265-163 to approve the Ensuring Veterans' Smooth Transition, or EVEST, Act. The vote fell largely along party lines, though 44 Republicans joined Democrats to support the bill.

Right now, veterans must proactively apply for health care benefits at the VA. The bill approved Thursday would require the department to instead automatically enroll veterans who meet existing eligibility criteria for VA health care. The VA would also have to provide a way for veterans to opt out of coverage.

The bill, which does not change who is eligible for VA health benefits, would apply retroactively to veterans discharged 90 days before it becomes law. The bill must still be voted on by the Senate before being sent to the president to be signed into law.

Supporters of the bill touted it as a common sense measure that will help ease the transition from the military to civilian life.

"We know that the months following transition out of the military can be very stressful and particularly risky for new veterans in terms of mental health," House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., who sponsored the bill, said Thursday on the House floor. "This helps simplify the process and prevents veterans from potentially missing out on lifesaving care. It also keeps veterans from having to opt-in to VA care later and attempt to navigate a new bureaucracy on their own."

The bill could affect about 58,000 veterans annually who might otherwise not enroll in VA health care, according to estimates from the Congressional Budget Office, or CBO.


Toxic air pollution in West Virginia


Institute is a small town in West Virginia and one of two majority-Black census tracks in a state that is 94 percent white. It’s home to West Virginia State University, an HBCU whose alumni includes NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson (who was featured in the film “Hidden Figures”).

And nestled near Institute is the Union Carbide chemical manufacturing plant, owned by Dow Chemical. And while it’s been a source for jobs in the area for decades, many residents of Institute associate the plant with chemical leaks and fires.

Last year, a West Virginia state health department report found that the towns of Institute and South Charleston are seeing a spike in cancer related to ethylene oxide, a chemical produced at the Union Carbide plant.

In this edition of Local Spotlight, we talk to the reporter behind an investigation into the toxic air pollution in Institute, West Virginia, and explore how the town compares to other Black communities in the country that face disproportionate health risks from air pollution.


Reminder: Midland and Tittabawassee River area still under dioxin advisory for livestock


Area residents are being reminded to not eat eggs or meat from animals raised downstream from Midland along the Tittabawassee and Saginaw rivers due to possible dioxin contamination.

Representatives from Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) gave an online presentation Tuesday night regarding dioxin contamination along the Tittabawassee River by Midland and the hazards that come from it. These groups advise against the raising of chickens and other livestock due to possible health risks from humans consuming too much dioxin.

The dioxin contamination is due to past Dow waste handling practices, said environmental engineer specialist at EGLE, Dan Dailey. This stemmed from burning dioxins or discharging them into the river, he said.

Dioxin chemicals can then spread from the river onto the land during flooding events when the water picks up sediments with dioxin and deposits them on land. Even though Dow no longer discharges dioxins, the chemical lingers for a long time, Dailey said. High amounts of dioxin have been measured in parts of Midland and along the Tittabawassee River.

When asked about the destructive 2020 flood in Midland, Arthur Ostaszewski, environmental quality analyst for EGLE, said EGLE did not see a spike in dioxin in the area after the flood.


Chemical defoliants sprayed on Amazon rainforest to facilitate deforestation in Brazil

Chemicals created to kill agricultural pests are being sprayed by aircraft into native forest areas.

Glyphosate and 2,4-D, among others, cause the trees to defoliate, and end up weakened or dead in a process that takes months. Next criminals remove the remaining trees more easily and drop grass seeds by aircraft, consolidating deforestation.

Brazil’s environmental agency, IBAMA, discovered that in addition to land grabbers, cattle ranchers use the method in order to circumvent forest monitoring efforts.

Pesticides have been dropped from planes and even helicopters with the aim of evading IBAMA, the Brazilian environmental agency, for years as a method to clear remote and hard-to-reach areas of the Amazon rainforest. That practice — used more frequently since 2018 — takes longer than clear-cut deforestation (the removal of all existing vegetation using heavy machinery). On the other hand, pesticide use cannot be detected via real-time satellite imagery.

According to IBAMA, some pesticides work as defoliants. The dispersion of those chemicals over native forest is the initial stage of deforestation, causing the death of leaves — and a good part of the trees. The material is burned and surviving trees are  removed with chainsaws and tractors.

“Although human-induced forest degradation takes a few years to happen, the process is advantageous to criminals because chances of being caught are very low. We can only see the damage when the clearing is already formed,” notes an IBAMA official who spoke with Mongabay on the condition of anonymity. “A dead forest is easier to remove than a living one. Certain (not all of them) pesticides practically leave only big trees standing.”

VA Tests New Automated System that Could Speed Up Claims Decisions


Department of Veterans Affairs officials are hoping a new automated system that helps render decisions on disability claims will accelerate the process and decrease the backlog of claims applications.

The automated system being considered by the VA has proven to shorten the disability claims review process from 100 days to two under certain circumstances and conditions, according to the agency.

A pilot run of the VA Automated Benefits Delivery System, launched in December, looked at claims filed by veterans seeking upgrades to their disability ratings for hypertension and cut 98 days from the process for those with complete files.

VA officials said the program is part of a plan to address 260,000 current disability claims, including 59,000 that are older than 125 days and are considered backlogged.

"We saw an opportunity to look at our traditional disability claims process and see how we can better leverage the data we have ... to introduce business-process automation," explained Rob Reynolds, acting deputy undersecretary for the VA's Office of Automated Benefit Delivery, during a press conference with reporters Tuesday.

The system takes electronic or paper claims and uses algorithms to determine whether the file contains enough data and information to render a decision. It then weighs the information against the rules that govern disability claims and makes a recommendation whether to approve or disapprove the claim.

The system's recommendation is reviewed and validated by a rating veterans service representative. If at any time the system decides that more information is needed -- the veteran needs a comprehensive medical exam or more data is required to render a decision -- the claim is sent to a claims reviewer for traditional processing, Reynolds said.


Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Exposed to Environmental Toxins in the Military? A House Committee Wants to Hear from You


The House Veterans Affairs Committee wants to hear from troops and veterans about their environmental exposures while serving in the U.S. military.

Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., has set up an online survey for veterans asking about what they've experienced as effects of toxic exposure.

The request for help gauging the impact of exposure was announced just before Takano's planned roundtable with veterans organizations Wednesday, titled "The True Cost of our Promise to Toxic Exposed Veterans."

The survey seeks info on the extent of exposure, health conditions possibly related to environmental pollutants, the VA's response and what lawmakers can do to help affected veterans.

"Your responses will help the Committee better understand veterans' experiences with toxic exposure and how Congress can help ensure these veterans receive the benefits they have earned and deserve," Takano wrote in an announcement last week.

Takano is the lead sponsor of the Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, or PACT, Act, which would broadly expand affected veterans' access to health care disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The $282 billion proposed legislation would designate 23 diseases as presumed to be related to battlefield environmental exposures in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

It also would expand eligibility to veterans who have faced challenges applying for benefits, including those who served in Vietnam and have hypertension, as well as Vietnam-era veterans exposed to Agent Orange and other defoliants outside the war zone.

An unknown number of post-9/11, Persian Gulf War and Vietnam-era veterans are suffering from respiratory illnesses, cancer and other diseases that many believe are related to exposure to chemicals, radiation and heavy metals during their military service.


Association between industrial pollutants including dioxins and dioxin-like compounds and hepatocellular carcinoma risk


The incidence of the most common form of liver cancer (75-85%), hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), has increased since the 1970s. Internationally, liver cancer is the second most common cause of cancer-related death. HCC risk factors can include chronic hepatitis B and C virus infection, excessive alcohol consumption, aflatoxin exposure, tobacco use, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Recent studies suggest that the incidence of HCC could be influenced by environmental exposures due to liver cancer’s geographic variation. Dioxin and dioxin-like compounds can be found in environmentally toxic emissions that could have adverse effects on the locally exposed human population. Dioxins and dioxin-like compounds include persistent organic pollutants [e.g., polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDDs), polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs), and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)] that are produced from industrial combustion processes including waste incineration.




In the 1960s, Ernie Rivers taught Navy flight students at the Pensacola Naval Air Station how to live off the land if their plane was downed. He was the officer in charge of the survival unit, overseeing 30 to 35

instructors, who taught more than 100 men a week how to survive with only a compass, map, and a hunting knife. Every week groups of students would camp for three days, using different sites on Eglin Air Force Base Reservation in Florida.

When the winds and clouds were right, Rivers and his men would watch planes pass overhead, clouds of spray coming from them. Several times he and his men were sprayed. “I’d say, ‘At least we don’t have to use bug repellant,’” he noted, laughing, during an interview. That was a big plus, they thought, for them as well as Army Rangers who were also training out in the bayous of the Florida panhandle, where mosquitoes and other bugs could make life miserable.

Rivers and the students thought they were watching the Air Force spray DDT to kill mosquitoes. What was actually being sprayed, he said, was Agent Orange. Documents show that gallons of the defoliants Agent

Orange, Agent Purple, and Agent White were sprayed at Eglin. In fact, according to officials overseeing the program, the Air Force sprayed a test area on the base with more dioxin than any similar area in Vietnam. The fact that Agent Orange was sprayed in Florida for eight years was not widely known then or even today. Only in the last several years has the documentation on the spraying been made publicly available by Alvin Young, an Air Force scientist for more than 15 years at Eglin. Young oversaw a huge research project evaluating how massive spraying of Agent Orange at the Florida air force base affected its soil, water, plants, fish, and animals.


Residents speak out after high levels of dioxins found in west Eugene


EUGENE, Ore. – Residents are speaking out after soil testing revealed high levels of dioxins at six properties in one west Eugene neighborhood.

The samples were collected from yards north of Roosevelt Boulevard, across the street from the wood preserving facility J.H. Baxter & Co.

"It makes me wonder if a few years down the line, I come up with a positive cancer test, will it be because of the factory that I'm living next to?" said Rose Mead, who lives in the neighborhood.

Soil from her yard was tested. According to the department of environmental quality, the concentration of dioxins found could potentially pose heath risks to children six and younger who are exposed to the soil for at least a year.

According to Mead who has lived in the neighborhood for about two years, there have been ongoing issues with the J.H. Baxter & Co. facility.

"It started just being at nighttime, like somehow we wouldn't notice the clouds of smoke go up and bad smelling air at night when we're trying to sleep," Mead said.


EPA Reapproves Enlist One, Enlist Duo Pesticides With New Protections for Endangered Species


WASHINGTON— The Environmental Protection Agency today issued seven-year reapprovals for both Enlist Duo and Enlist One for use on conventional and genetically engineered corn, cotton and soybeans.

Enlist Duo is an herbicide cocktail containing the active ingredients 2,4-D and glyphosate; Enlist One contains only 2,4-D. Both products are widely used on crops genetically altered to withstand what would normally be a fatal dose of the chemicals.

The agency also announced that for the first time it had evaluated the pesticides’ impacts on endangered wildlife and was putting in place measures to protect dozens of protected species from harm.

“It’s good that the EPA is finally putting at least some on-the-ground measures in place to protect the nation’s most endangered species from these highly toxic products,” said Lori Ann Burd, environmental health director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “But we’re deeply concerned that the agency failed to complete consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service during this process, and we hope that the Service will step in quickly to ensure that the nation’s most endangered plants and animals are adequately protected.”

The new measures to protect endangered species represent a sharp departure from the previous registration of Enlist Duo in 2014. At that time the EPA declared, without engaging in formal Endangered Species Act consultation, that the chemical cocktail would cause no harm to any endangered species.

Key protective measures include prohibiting use of the products where they may harm or kill endangered species in the field. That change effectively bans their use on about 3% of corn acreage, 8% of cotton acreage and 2% of soybean acreage.

However, the EPA has made its determinations about how to protect endangered species without the legally required final input from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the nation’s expert wildlife agency.


Young and Dying: Veterans Are Getting Brain Cancer and Struggling to Get Benefits


The mesh cap that Noah Feehan wore nearly all day, every day, contained 18 terminals that delivered electrical pulses to his brain and the deadly tumor growing inside it.

Diagnosed with a form of cancer called glioblastoma in December 2020, Feehan, a 38-year-old Minnesota Air National Guard master sergeant, had vowed to do whatever it took to battle his illness even if it meant that, in addition to radiation and chemotherapy, he would wear the device 18 hours a day, sometimes enduring shocks so painful they forced him to his knees.

But the treatment triggered more than momentary pain. He stopped eating -- and smiling.

At a baseball game last summer, Noah’s wife of 13 years leaned in and asked him whether he wanted to take off the cap permanently, even if it meant abandoning an experimental weapon on which the family’s hopes rested.

"He goes, 'Can I?'" Jenny Feehan said. “I said, ‘Of course, you can.' I never saw him happier. It was like a light switch went on."

No one knows for certain why Feehan, who serves as an avionics technician, developed a rare brain cancer with an average life expectancy of 12 to 18 months that usually afflicts those in their 60s or older.


Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Support Birth Defect Research for Children - Because every birth defect has a cause

Cancer-causing waste found at troubled paper mill on SC river. How did it get there?


As Carolinas residents complained last year about nauseating fumes from a York County paper mill, a less visible threat lurked in some of the mill’s aging waste lagoons along the Catawba River. The threat is dioxin, an industrial waste generated for decades by paper and pulp mills as they produced white paper for sale in many widely used products. Known as one of the world’s most toxic chemicals, dioxin has been tied to the deaths of domestic animals and illnesses in children who came in contact with the material. It is known to cause cancer and is of particular concern because dioxin can linger in the environment for decades. Even microscopic amounts can be a danger to people and wildlife. TOP VIDEOS WATCH MORE × Panthers vs Bucs The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control recently confirmed that dioxin has been identified in waste sludge in four lagoons at the New Indy LLC container board plant south of Charlotte. The lagoons hold about 6.5 million cubic yards of sludge, the agency said. It is unclear how much dioxin is in the sludge and who is responsible for the contamination because various companies have owned the paper mill since it was built in the late 1950s. New Indy says it didn’t release dioxin.


Decades later, EPA still working on cleanup of Florida’s “Mount Dioxin”


Pensacola wood treatment plant just one of 92 Superfund sites around the Sunshine State.

Florida has lots of communities with a history that is — oh, what’s a good word? Let’s say “unusual.”

Sweetwater, for instance, was founded by a troupe of Russian circus midgets whose bus broke down. Sanibel’s drive to incorporate as a city was led by a trio of retired CIA agents, one of whom became the first mayor. Nalcrest, was built by and for retired letter carriers, so dogs are, of course, banned.

Or take my hometown of Pensacola. It’s one of the great also-rans of history. It was founded before St. Augustine, but a storm smashed the Spanish colonists’ supply ships, chasing them away. That’s why St. Augustine, not Pensacola, gets all the tourists who want to visit the oldest continuously occupied city in North America.

Then, in 1861, the Civil War almost started there. Confederate troops planned to attack the Union-held fort guarding the mouth of the harbor. Once again, though, a storm interfered, forcing the Rebels to postpone their bombardment. That’s how Fort Sumter, S.C., made it into the history books, instead of Fort Pickens in Florida.

But Pensacola does have a couple of modern claims to notoriety. It was the first place where a doctor carrying out abortions was murdered by someone claiming to be “pro-life.” And it is the site of one of the worst Superfund sites in the nation, one that ranks up there just behind Love Canal and Times Beach.

We live in an era of “supers,” as comic-book superhero movies from Marvel and DC rake in big bucks. But this super is far more vital to saving our lives and our planet than Iron Man and Batman and all their gadgets put together.  Jimmy Carter. Official portrait, 1977. 39th President of the United States. Credit: Wikipedia.

“Superfund” is a fairly benign nickname for something that is both scary and necessary. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act was passed by Congress in 1980 and signed into law by then-President Jimmy Carter.


Wednesday, January 5, 2022

The Right Wants to Make Disabled Veterans Into the New “Welfare Queens”


In recent years, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have backed privatization of services provided by the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). As part of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the VHA serves about nine million patients and operates the largest public health care system in the country.

Since 2015, billions of dollars have been diverted from VHA care to private doctors and hospitals who treat veterans in costlier and less effective fashion. This cannibalization of the VHA budget began under President Barack Obama, escalated during the Donald Trump era, and continues under Joe Biden.

Up until now, few Republicans, or their allies like the Koch brothers–funded Concerned Veterans for America (CVA), dared to attack the VA-run Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), a sacred cow even for conservatives. Nearly six million veterans currently receive payments for service-related medical conditions that left them partially or totally impaired; among them are 1.3 million men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their total compensation, plus pensions, costs the public about $110 billion per year.

Publication of a new book, touted by Trump’s last VA secretary, signals that any ceasefire over veterans’ benefits has ended inside the Beltway. In Wounding Warriors: How Bad Policy is Making Veterans Sicker and Poorer, Daniel Gade, a retired US Army lieutenant colonel and former Trump administration official, has teamed up with an ex–Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Huang, to demand major “entitlement reform” at the VBA.

The authors — who are definitely not critics of the military-industrial complex — denounce what they call a “disability-industrial complex.” They argue that monthly checks from the VBA foster a costly and unhealthy culture of dependence among veterans — and should be sharply restricted, not expanded.

Robert Wilkie, the Republican operative who helped expand VHA outsourcing while serving as VA chief until last year, has joined the call for benefit cuts from his own new perch at the Heritage Foundation. At a Veterans Day event with Gade in November, Wilkie accused his former agency of being overly “focused on getting veterans checks and not getting them well and getting them back into society.” Like Gade, he claimed that veterans service organizations encourage former military personnel “to play disability” — with the result being that too many noncombat veterans are getting undeserved compensation.


The hidden legacy of Agent Orange



All wars are brutal, but some are more savage than others in the number of people killed and how they died. During World War I (1914-1918) approximately 19.7 million people lost their lives — 9.7 million military personnel and 10 million civilians. Chemical weapons were used by both sides to kill over 90,000 combatants and injure approximately 1.2 million more.

Although the number of deaths in the Vietnam War — 1.35 million military personnel including 58,200 Americans, and up to 2 million North and South Vietnamese civilians — was much less than in World War I, the toxic impact of chemical agents was significant. During Operation Ranch Hand (1962-1971) the U.S. military sprayed approximately 20 million gallons of “rainbow herbicide” defoliants: agents orange, green, blue, pink, purple and white (nicknamed for the color on the barrels in which they were shipped) in Vietnam (primarily), eastern Laos and parts of Cambodia.

Approximately 65% of rainbow herbicides contained dioxin, one of the most toxic materials ever manufactured. Dioxins can cause cancer, reproductive problems (including spontaneous abortions) developmental problems, damage to the immune system, type 2 diabetes, ischemic heart disease and interfere with hormones.

The use of “rainbow herbicides” led to a 1984 class action suit by Vietnam veterans and their families against chemical companies that produced these defoliants. The suit alleged that Agent Orange exposure resulted in cancers, other serious health conditions and birth defects in children of veterans.

Dow Chemical Company utilized the “government contractor defense.” That is, if Dow could prove the herbicides were manufactured to Defense Department specifications, and both parties were aware of the hazards presented by these defoliants, the company could not be held liable for health problems caused by the herbicides.

Arguing against Dow’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, veterans’ attorneys cited a then-secret 1965 meeting of chemical companies wherein Dow scientists warned about significant health dangers of dioxin. As reported in the New York Times, the veterans’ lawyers stated: “Since the mid-1960s, Dow had information that Agent Orange supplied to the Government contained large levels of dioxin, far in excess of anything Dow considered safe or necessary … What did Dow do with this information?” the attorneys asked. “It concealed it from the Government and asked others, it’s co-defendants, to do the same.”

National action plan on overcoming consequences of toxic chemicals/dioxin issued


Hanoi (VNA) – Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh has signed Decision No. 2215/QD-TTg promulgating the national action plan on overcoming the post-war consequences of toxic chemicals/dioxin in Vietnam for the 2021-2030 period.

The plan aims to deal with all hotspots and areas contaminated with toxic chemicals/dioxin left from the war in the country, specifically at A So airport in the central province of Thua Thien-Hue and Phu Cat airport in the central province of Binh Dinh by 2025, and at Bien Hoa airport in the southern province of Dong Nai and newly-discovered areas by 2030.

By 2025, over 85 percent of the risk of exposure to toxic chemicals/dioxin from contaminated areas will be controlled. The rate will reach 100 percent by 2030.