Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Opening the Lid on Agent Orange: Barry Helps Direct Investigation of Veterans' Health Problems

By Alex Guadagno

The impact of Jan Barry’s investigation was not immediate, but it was significant. For the first time, the right questions were on the table and the framework was laid for further exploration of Vietnam veterans’ health problems and whether or not they could be attributed to the US government’s use of defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Over the course of the next ten years, agencies would be founded to seek justice for afflicted veterans; lawsuits would be filed against major players in the production of Agent Orange; the efficacy and candor of government organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency would be seriously called into question.

“It pointed the investigation in the right direction,” said Barry of his Morristown Daily Record series and role in the ensuing events. “It helped [other reporters] focus on where to ask the questions.”

Barry’s series of articles was printed in the Daily Record (Morristown, NJ) in 1980 over the course of four days. He had been working as a reporter since 1976, but this was his first in-depth investigative report.

Barry, age 66, is a Vietnam veteran, and first worked as a columnist and researcher at CBS News. However, his journalistic career essentially began at The Record (Bergen County, NJ), where he worked as a fact checker. It was there that Barry was able to develop a flair for asking the sort of questions that would later produce such provoking reports.

According to Barry, who never saw the effects of Agent Orange firsthand, his own experience in Vietnam did not give him much of an edge on the investigation. “It did provide an network and helped in that I could talk to other people who had been in Vietnam,” said Barry, who recalls being slipped a few memos by Veteren’s Administration headquarters employees trying to sidetrack the investigation.

After receiving the green light for the investigation from his editor at the time-- who was a GI in the war himself-- Barry didn’t even have to make a physical return to Vietnam in order to substantiate his evidence on the lingering health hazards of Agent Orange. Shortly after the Morristown Daily Record articles, it was discovered that dangerous levels of dioxin were still present in a Newark chemical plant, Diamond Shamrock, which had manufactured Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. It was a researcher in Puerto Rico who shed light on the concern that New Jersey journalists had previously been ignoring.

In his 1983 New York Times follow-up article, Barry admonished New Jersey news people for not getting to the story first. “Why did it take three years for the lid to be opened?” Barry asked. The follow-up article also recapped some major developments that three short years had brought forth after his initial investigation: a University of Medicine and Dentistry dermatologist confirmed he had been treating Diamond Shamrock workers for chloracne (dioxin-related skin disease) since 1964; The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reported high cancer-death rates and chloracne in employees of plants like Diamond Shamrock where dioxin was present; a class action suit was filed in Superior Court against Diamond Shamrock; The New Jersey Agent Orange Commission was formed by veterans and scientists to conduct its own health study when the EPA’s research stagnated.

One article in Barry’s landmark Daily Record series focused on challenges to the dependability of a health study conducted by the Veteren’s Administration on Vietnam Veterans’ health. The VA estimated the comprehensive health study could take up to a decade. “For some veterans concerned to see a thorough health study done as soon as possible, the VA is the wrong agency, with the wrong approach, at the wrong time,” reported Barry.

The New Jersey Agent Orange Commission closed down in 1996, though only after it backed groundbreaking research on the harmful effects of Agent Orange and played its part in winning Vietnam veterans their 1984 settlement of $180 million, reported the New York Times. The settlement included Diamond Shamrock, as well as Monsanto and Dow Chemical.

No comments:

Post a Comment