By the CBC
In the palette of deadly poisons, one of the most famous is Agent Orange, a defoliant best known for its use during the war in Vietnam. Others are known by the names Green, Blue and Pink.
Far from Southeast Asia, dense forest was also a problem at CFB Gagetown. Military commanders said they needed to clear the brush in order to conduct training exercises. So the military struck an agreement with the Americans to test the defoliants.
Ottawa has acknowledged that Agent Orange defoliant was used in the 1960s to clear training areas at CFB Gagetown, but the government has only acknowledged the harm caused by Agent Orange when it was sprayed on Gagetown in 1966 and 1967.
CBC News learned Agent Orange wasn’t the only herbicide sprayed at the base. There was also Agent Purple, lesser known, but more toxic.
In 2005, Wayne Cardinal took 14 different medications every day for his heart and respiratory ailments. The 61-year-old retired soldier was wondering if he and his fellow soldiers were sick from Agent Orange.
“I can remember guys coming in with ears all blistered up and being sent to the MIR and told, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you, quiet about this, this is just probably a reaction to the chemical. It won’t harm you.’ And many guys can relate stories like that,” Cardinal says.
Experts like cancer and leukemia specialist Richard van de Jagt of the University of Ottawa have long made a connection between Agent Orange and many health problems.
“Cancers including leukemia, prostate cancer, lung cancer, et cetera, and then we also know it to have endocrine effects and causing blindness, cataract formation,” van de Jagt says.
CBC News learned that the spraying at CFB Gagetown was more extensive than previously thought. Documents obtained by CBC News show that in the summer of 1966 the military used Agent Purple.
Agent Purple had more than three times the level of lethal dioxin as Agent Orange. It was also laced with arsenic. It was so bad that the Americans stopped using it in Vietnam the year before.
The CBC investigation showed that planes sprayed other herbicides containing dioxin from 1956 to 1967, herbicides that were later banned for their health effects.
A military briefing note to the New Brunswick cabinet obtained by CBC News showed that more than a thousand barrels of a now-banned herbicide was sprayed on CFB Gagetown.
It listed in part: “Overview of herbicides spray program. 1956: 3,687 acres, 2,4,-D and 2,4,5-T1957: 3,879 acres.”
Then they were legal, now some of them have since been banned. 2,4,5,-T was sprayed frequently to kill dense brush. The New Brunswick documents also showed that substances mistakenly blew onto nearby farms.
In 1964 there was a spray application accident. Increased winds carried the spray to the Upper Gagetown and Sheffield area. The Crown paid approximately $250,000 to several market gardens in the area as reparation for the damage to their crops.
Decades later, many residents are wondering if their illnesses are linked to the spraying at Gagetown.
On June 13, 2005, in the House of Commons, then defence minister Bill Graham was asked about Agent Purple and replied: “We are making strenuous efforts to obtain the appropriate records, work with those who have been exposed, work with anybody in the community who knows anything about this.”
CBC News also obtained a draft fact sheet from the Department of National Defence. It says the department does not have a list of people who served at CFB Gagetown who may have been exposed, and it says the number who may have come into contact with the chemical is thought to be minimal.
“What upsets me so much is that my government, who I faithfully served for 40 years, has covered this up and lied about it for 40 years. What a shame. What a shame for the troops who have served them so well,” Cardinal says.
Van de Jagt says like Agent Orange, the chemical 2,4,5,-T, can cause cancer: “Agent Orange and 2,4,5,-T have been banned because of their known toxic effects and they’ve actually been off. They’ve been banned for many years.”
After planes took off from the Gagetown airstrip, nearby communities had no idea what chemicals were being sprayed. People say they were kept in the dark and they doubt the chemicals that were sprayed stayed put.
Ken Dobbie has been sick for more than 30 years. It began with liver problems when he was a young man. The 58-year-old has been sick for more than 30 years. He never understood why until a few years ago.
It escalated to cirrhosis, pancreatitis, diabetes and brain atrophy. “I have type II diabetes; I have micro nodular sclerosis of the liver; idiopathic chronic pancreatitis; I’m in constant pain;” Dobbie says. “One of the questionnaires I remember had said, ‘Have you ever worked with a chemical in your past?’ That’s when it hit me.”
Dobbie remembered a summer job on the military base near his home in Oromocto, N.B. He was hired to clear brush that had been sprayed with a herbicide. That summer, 1966, the Canadian military sprayed Agent Orange at Gagetown.
Dobbie worked that summer with other local teenagers clearing and burning the contaminated brush. He says they had no protective gear.
“I know that I was there with several hundred other kids, I know what I did. It was an incredible experience because we were outdoors in the summertime working, and to us, it was a great job, but we didn’t know that it was going to be killing us in the years later,” Dobbie says. “There’s no other reason on this Earth why I would be having about 15 different diseases and ailments that are going to eventually turn into cancer.”
His family doctor says his symptoms likely point to some kind of chemical exposure. Dr. Robert West says: “He doesn’t have a history of drug use or alcoholism, and it was a relatively acute illness with some changes in liver function on the blood, so that would suggest an immediate exposure to something.”
Someone should be held accountable
Jody Carr is the MLA representing Oromocto and Gagetown. He says there are many civilians like Dobbie who should be compensated.
“I think the federal minister has the obligation to extend that compensation to firstly, any civilian that worked at base Gagetown at the time of spraying of Agent Orange. If any of those civilians have an illness as a result of that, they should be compensated as well as the veterans,” Carr says.
In 2004, Dobbie was hospitalized six times. He tests for liver cancer every three months. Along with cirrhosis, he has pancreatitis, diabetes and atrophy of the frontal lobes of his brain.
In 2005, Dobbie called the Defence Department in Ottawa to tell them about his job and see if they had any records. They said they would look into it.
Documents obtained by CBC News suggest the department believes no civilians were exposed to Agent Orange on the base. A draft fact sheet says there is no indication there were any civilians involved in or exposed to the testing.
Carr says he has heard from lots of civilians who say they’ve been affected by the spraying. He says they, too, should be compensated.
“To try to determine how many civilians, a particular number, it’s very difficult, but the fact is that regardless of the costs, the federal government has the moral and ethical responsibility,” Carr says.
But for people like Dobbie it’s a tremendous challenge to try to prove his illnesses were caused by the spraying. Years afterwards, doctors are often unable to confirm exposure.
Dobbie may not have the time to prove it.
“I guess the way I can sum it up is it’s too soon. I don’t deserve to be dying at 57. I don’t deserve this and no one who worked there deserves any kind of illnesses they have,” Dobbie says.
Dobbie is now the president of the Agent Orange Association of Canada, an advocacy group for those affected by the dioxins sprayed. So far, five Gagetown veterans have been awarded military disability pensions because of dioxin-related illnesses.
A Canadian expert on Agent Orange says it’s likely there is still dioxin in the soil at Gagetown.
Dr. Wayne Dwernychuk is an environmental consultant who spent several years testing dioxin levels in the countryside of Vietnam. He’s an expert on the rainbow of toxic chemicals used by the U.S. military to kill jungle leaves so they could better see their enemy.
He says soil tests in that country show Agent Purple contained about four times the level of dioxin found in Agent Orange. And he says dioxin is likely still sitting in the soil at Gagetown.
“If you went back to the areas today where Agent Purple was sprayed and undertook some sampling, there’s a high probability that you will find some dioxin, given the analytical techniques of today,” Dwernychuk says.
That means dioxin may still be leeching into the water system … and eventually into people’s bodies.
“Through the process of biomagnification,” he says, “it could eventually end up in humans and develop some form of high levels in livers and fatty tissues.”
Dwernychuk also says the spraying of the chemical 2,4,5,-T throughout the 1950s and ’60s undoubtedly drove up dioxin levels.
It’s a key ingredient found in both Agent Orange and Agent Purple. It was banned in Canada in 1985.
The CBC’s government documents refer to environmental assessments at Gagetown in the mid-1980s.
They show no evidence of dioxin.
But Dwernychuk says new studies are needed because dramatic changes in technology have improved the detection of toxins.
The federal government reaction
At the time of the Agent Orange testing, the Canadian government said very little about it, even denying the chemical was harmful at one point.
But in May 2005, Veterans Affairs acknowledged that the testing at CFB Gagetown exposed Canadian soldiers to a health risk. Then defence minister Bill Graham said those who believe they were affected can come forward and apply for assistance.
Graham has said he wants to hear from any veterans who may have been exposed to chemicals here, but the government did not promise any money to study health problems on the base or in the surrounding communities, nor has it promised to compensate any civilians.
On June 14, 2005, then Veterans Affairs Minister Albina Guarnieri said a committee will review disability applications. CBC News has learned 22 of those applications were previously denied.
The federal government eventually changed its stance. In August 2005, Ottawa launched an investigation into the use of Agent Orange and Agent Purple in the 1960s at CFB Gagetown. Investigators met with active and retired members of the Canadian military and retired civilian employees who were there during the tests.
And on Aug. 10, 2006, the results were in: present-day levels of dioxin are too low to be of any concern. The independent researchers hired by the government found that spraying in remote areas of the base in 1966 and 1967 did not pose a threat to the long-term health of those involved in the program. These were the first two of several reports examining health impacts of defoliant use at CFB Gagetown.
However, retired soldier Grant Payne said this contradicted earlier reports that showed current levels of dioxin were higher than the national guidelines in some areas. And, a scientific peer review raised concerns about the small number of soil samples and water samples.
Despite the findings, that same day the Conservative government announced it would still compensate those exposed to Agent Orange. But, it acknowledged the new reports meant fewer people were eligible. Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson said it would make a final decision on the compensation program by early 2007.
Sources: CBC News Online stories, and the National and CBC Radio World Report, June 13 and 14, 2005. Reporter: Louise Elliott.