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Archive for the ‘VA Agent Orange’ Category

The Dark Side of the Perfectly Manicured American Lawn: Is It Giving You Cancer?  By McKay Jenkins from the book Contamination 

On a beautiful April day, I decided to meet outside with my students at the University of Delaware, where I teach journalism. We sat on the central lawn between two buildings that just happened to bear the names of two gargantuan chemical companies: DuPont and Gore. In the middle of a conversation about agricultural pesticides, a groundskeeper, dressed from feet to neck in a white chemical suit, drove by us on a mower. He wasn’t cutting the grass, though; he was spraying it. And not from one nozzle, but from half a dozen. Up and back he went, describing parallel lines as neat as those in any Iowa farmer’s cornfield. Not a blade escaped the spray. This became a perfect teaching moment.

“Who’s going to ask him what he’s spraying?” I asked my students. One young woman marched over to the groundskeeper. He turned off his engine, they spoke, and she returned.

“He said he’s spraying 2,4-D,” she said. “He said we didn’t need to worry, because he sprayed where we’re sitting at five this morning.”

Which would mean about seven hours earlier. My students chuckled uneasily. He was wearing a full-body chem suit, and they were sitting on the grass in shorts and bare feet?

They’d never heard of 2,4-D, or 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid. But they had heard of Agent Orange, the notorious defoliant used in Vietnam, and 2,4-D, one of the most extensively used herbicides in the world, is a constituent of Agent Orange (it did not cause the bulk of the devastating effects associated with Agent Orange). It was developed during World War II, mostly as a weapon to destroy an enemy’s rice crops. Despite its history, 2,4-D has long been seen as safe for consumer use.

In the 1940s, botanist E. J. Kraus of the University of Chicago fed five and a half grams of pure 2,4-D to a cow every day for three months. The cow was fine, according to Kraus, as was her calf. Kraus said he himself had eaten half a gram of the stuff every day for three weeks and felt great. This was apparently good enough for the rest of the country; within five years, American companies were annually producing 14 million pounds of the stuff. By 1964, the number had jumped to 53 million pounds.

Today, annual sales of 2,4-D have surpassed $300 million worldwide, and it’s found in “weed and feed” products, like Scotts Green Sweep, Ortho Weed B Gon, Salvo, Weedone, and Spectracide. At first, its impact on humans seems mild—skin and eye irritation, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, stiffness in the arms and legs—and many lawn-care companies have dismissed health concerns. Plus, the businesses add that the amount of chemicals in sprays is very diluted.

With 80 million home lawns and over 16,000 golf courses, you get close to 50 million acres of cultivated turf in America.

But the effects are more worrisome when considered over time. Because 2,4-D is designed to mimic a plant’s natural growth hormone, it causes such rapid cell growth that the stems of treated plants tend to become grotesquely twisted and their roots swollen; the leaves turn yellow and die; and the plants starve to death (2,4-D does not have this effect on grass).

Unsurprisingly, 2,4-D also appears to affect human hormones. The National Institute of Health Sciences lists it as a suspected endocrine disrupter, and several studies point to its possible contribution to reproductive-health problems and genetic mutations. Although the EPA says there isn’t enough evidence to classify 2,4-D as a carcinogen, a growing body of research has begun to link it to a variety of cancers.

A 1986 National Cancer Institute (NCI) study found that farmers exposed to 2,4-D for 20 or more days a year had a sixfold higher risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Another NCI study showed that dogs were twice as likely to contract lymphoma if their owners used 2,4-D on their lawns.

Like flame retardants, this compound also tends to accumulate inside people’s homes even days after the lawn has been sprayed. One study found 2,4-D in the indoor dust of 63 percent of sampled homes; another showed that levels of the chemical in indoor air and on indoor surfaces increased after lawn applications. After 2,4-D was sprayed, exposure levels for children were ten times higher than before the lawns were treated—an indication of how easily the chemical is tracked inside on the little feet of dogs, cats, and kids.

Thanks to pressure from campus activists, my university replaced 2,4-D with “softer” herbicides and began putting signs on lawns that had just been sprayed. Of course, 2,4-D is one of scores of pesticides in use. According to David Pimentel, professor emeritus of entomology at Cornell University, 110,000 people suffer adverse health effects from pesticides every year, and 10,000 cases of cancer in humans may be attributable to pesticide exposure.

 

The Greening of America

In 1900, 60 percent of Americans lived in rural areas. Today, 83 percent live in cities or suburbs. With that change has come an astonishing shift in the landscape. Over the past half century, Americans have become obsessed with grass. When you add up the country’s 80 million home lawns and over 16,000 golf courses, you get close to 50 million acres of cultivated turf in the United States, an expanse roughly the size of Nebraska. This space is growing by 600 square miles a year.

By 1999, more than two thirds of America’s home lawns had been treated with chemical fertilizers or pesticides—14 million by professional lawn-care companies. A year later, the U.S. General Accounting Office reported that Americans were spraying 67 million pounds of synthetic chemicals on their grass every year, and annual sales of lawn-care pesticides had grown to $700 million.

The landscaping trucks rolling through our suburban neighborhoods seem to represent something more than a communal desire for lush grass. Could it be relief from anxiety? (Why else call a company Lawn Doctor?) For one thing, hiring lawn-care specialists is a public declaration that you have the money not to take care of your yard yourself.

Diligent lawn maintenance and chemical use are also associated with approval and social status, Ohio State researchers reported in 2012: “The main factor influencing a homeowner’s decision to use lawn chemicals is whether neighbors or other people in the neighborhood use them. Homeowners crave acceptance from their neighbors and generally want their lawns to fit in with their surrounding community, so they adopt their neighbors’ practices.”

We also create manicured lawns to play the most chemically dependent of pastimes: golf. By 2004, there were just under 15,000 golf courses in the United States—a patchwork of chemically treated turf the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.

Even grass seed comes coated with chemicals. A close look at a bag of Scotts grass seed reveals it has been treated with Apron XL fungicide, whose active ingredient is Metalaxyl-M, or methyl N-(methoxyacetyl)-N-(2,6-xylyl)-D-alaninate. The bag requests that the product be stored away from foodstuffs, kept out of the reach of children, and not be applied near water, storm drains, or drainage ditches. (A Scotts spokesperson says that its products are designed to be safe when used as directed.)

As the use of chemicals has become widespread, lawn companies have found an unexpected source of profits. Herbicides like 2,4-D preserve grass but kill weeds like clover. Clover, however, pulls nitrogen out of the air and fixes it in the soil. Without clover, soil becomes nitrogen poor and fails to support plant life. So chemical companies now replace the depleted nitrogen, which homeowners used to get for free from clover, with synthetic nitrogen, for which they have to pay.

In America’s watersheds, nitrogen runoff is considered among the worst problems for water quality. Since synthetic fertilizers are water soluble, a good amount runs off your lawn after a rain, where it mixes with runoff from other homes and ends up feeding the plants in bodies of water. Doused with chemicals, algae grow and grow, creating “algae blooms” that—as they decay and die—suck most of the oxygen out of rivers, lakes, and bays and lead to massive “dead zones,” in which neither fish nor plants can live.

In 2007, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation published a report card on the bay’s health that showed just how much trouble chemicals can pose. The bay received an F for nitrogen pollution, a D-minus for phosphorous, an F for water quality, an F for dissolved oxygen, and a D for toxics. On a scale of 100 (with 100 being the best), the bay’s health was rated at 28.

In California, scientists are discovering that algae blooms off the coast not only remove oxygen; they also release a toxin, domoic acid. It enters the food chain when fish eat algae, then moves into the sea lions that consume the fish. If a sea lion is pregnant, her fetus can be contaminated, and years later, that mammal may develop epilepsy.

 

One Man’s Chemical Conversion

Paul Tukey knows about pesticides; the man who invented 2,4-D was a distant cousin. When Tukey was a kid in the late 1960s, his grandfather hired a biplane to spray his 300 acres of fields in Maine a couple of times a year. The fields were mostly planted with cattle feed, not with crops intended for human consumption. For Tukey, spraying day was a thrill.

“My grandfather would go out in the field, dressed in his wool underwear and thick heavy pants, and wave the biplane over his field,” Tukey recalled. “They’d drop this white powder, and he’d get back in the truck looking like Frosty the Snowman. Then we’d drive to the next field, and he’d do it again. My grandfather was getting doused 20 times a day, but he would never let me get out of the truck. I always wondered why I couldn’t go out and get dusted.”

Tukey’s grandfather died of a brain tumor at 60.

Tukey also followed his family’s agricultural tradition but charted his own course. For years, he operated one of southern Maine’s largest landscaping services and considered his job ideal. He worked outside in shorts and sandals. He never bothered with putting on protective gear.

In 1993, he started getting nosebleeds. His vision became blurry. But with business booming, Tukey was too busy to worry. One of his jobs was tending the grounds of a hospital where he hired university students for the work. One day, their professor, an eminent horticulturist named Rick Churchill, came by to say hello to his students. Tukey went out to greet him.

Churchill’s eyes were focused on the weeds, which Tukey’s crew had doused with herbicides and which were curling up and turning brown.

Churchill said, “I asked him how anyone in good conscience could be applying pesticides on the grounds of a hospital where there were patients being treated for cancers that could be linked to their exposure to pesticides. I asked whether he knew anything about the toxicity ratings of what he was applying and how dangerous many of these compounds were to an individual compromised by illness.”

The words cut deeply. “It was devastating,” Tukey told me. “In Maine, Rick Churchill is an icon.”

“You have broken bags of poison,” Tukey told the manager. “They all say, ‘Keep out of reach of children’!”

Tukey did some reading, and what he found was troubling. Pediatric cancers in Los Angeles had been linked to parental exposure to pesticides during pregnancy. In Denver, kids whose yards were treated with pesticides were found to be four times more likely to have soft-tissue cancers than kids whose yards were not. Elsewhere, links had been found between brain tumors in children and the use of weed killers, pest strips, and flea collars.

Tukey also learned that exposure to lawn chemicals was particularly alarming for people who spread them for a living. One study showed a threefold increase in lung cancer among lawn-care workers who used 2,4-D; another found a higher rate of birth defects among the children of chemical appliers. When he finally went to the doctor for his rashes and deteriorating eyesight, he learned that he had developed multiple chemical sensitivity. And his son—conceived in 1992, during the height of Tukey’s use of synthetic chemicals—was diagnosed with one of the worst cases of ADHD his physician had ever seen. (Several recent scientific reports suggest that toxic chemicals may play a role in ADHD.)

“All the evidence indicates that you don’t want pregnant women around these products, but I was walking into the house every single night with my legs coated with pesticides from the knees down,” he said. “Even when my son was a year or two old, … [he] would greet me at the door at night by grabbing me around the legs. He was getting pesticides on his hands and probably his face too.”

Tukey’s Breaking Point

In the midst of his research, Tukey was driving one day when he saw a sign: A store was having a big sale on Scotts Turf Builder. Tukey made a beeline. He was going to buy the store’s entire stock. Once inside, he walked to the lawn-care section. Tukey noticed a woman standing by the lawn chemicals. At her feet, a girl was making sand castles from a broken bag of pesticides. Suddenly, something in him burst—the DDT squirting over his grandfather’s fields, the chemicals that he’d sprayed outside the hospital, and now a child in a pile of pesticides.

Tukey told me, “I said, ‘Ma’am, you really shouldn’t let your child play with that. It’s not safe.’ I’m fundamentally shy, but this just came out of me.”

The store wouldn’t sell the stuff if it wasn’t safe, she told Tukey. She took her child and walked away. A manager came up and asked him if there was a problem. Tukey said there was.

“You have broken bags of poison on the floor,” Tukey said to the manager. “All those bags say, ‘Keep out of reach of children’!”

Those labels are there because of government formality, the manager said. The stuff isn’t dangerous. The store wouldn’t carry it if it was.

“That really was the stake in the heart of my chemical career,” Tukey said. “By then, I’d already made myself sick. I’d already been questioned by Rick Churchill. When I saw that girl making sand castles out of the pesticides, [there] was just a sudden gut-level reaction I couldn’t have anticipated. I was shaking when I left the store.”

Tukey issued a decree to his employees: His business was going organic. It was time to start weaning his company—and customers—off synthetic chemicals. Most clients were fine with his decision, just as long as it didn’t cost any more and as long as their lawns continued to look the same.

More than 170 municipalities in Canada have banned lawn pesticides, especially on public spaces like school yards and sports fields. Denmark, Norway, and Sweden have banned 2,4-D. In 2009, the European Parliament passed laws banning 22 pesticides that can cause cancer or disrupt human hormones or reproduction.

 

How to Bring Back Butterflies

Certainly, switching to a less toxic lawn company can reduce your family’s—and neighbors’—exposure to synthetic chemicals. It would also reduce the pollutants you contribute to the watershed. But there is another option, one that gets into the more inspiring realm of restoration. There is a way to think of your yard as more than a burden that needs to be mowed and weeded. There is a way to think of your yard as transformational, even magical. Doug Tallamy can show you how.

When Tallamy, former chair of the entomology department at the University of Delaware, walks around his yard, he sees things most of us would not. He can look at a black cherry tree and spot the larvae of 13 tiger swallowtail butterflies. He has planted scores of trees: sweet gums, tulips, white oaks, river birches, and sugar maples. But he’s really interested in bugs and birds—and boosting their numbers.

Suburban development has been devastating to avian populations. Most of the birds we see in our yards are probably house sparrows and starlings, invasive species from Europe. If you study the population numbers for native birds, you’ll find the wood thrush is down 48 percent; the bobwhite, 80 percent; bobolinks, 90 percent. An estimated 72 million birds are killed each year in America by direct exposure to pesticides, a number that does not include baby birds that perish because a parent died from pesticides or birds poisoned by eating contaminated insects or worms. The actual number of birds killed might be closer to 150 million.

In mid-Atlantic gardening circles, Tallamy is a bit of a prophet, his message freighted with both gloom and promise. It is the promise of ecological renewal that he most wants people to understand. His vision is based on three ideas: If you want more birds, you need more native insects; if you want more native insects, you need more native plants; and if you want more native plants, you need to get rid of—or shrink—your lawn.

Tallamy says that when we wake up in the morning to birdsong, it’s often being made by hungry migratory birds that may have just flown 300 miles. What is there to eat? Too frequently, ornamental trees that bear none of the insects the birds need—and chemically treated grass. Tallamy’s prescription: Put in native plants that will make your yard a haven for caterpillars, butterflies, and birds. In the mid-Atlantic region, this can mean swamp milkweed, butterfly weed, buttonbush, joe-pye weed, and a rudbeckia species like black-eyed Susans. At the University of Delaware, Tallamy and a team are restoring native species to the campus.

And me? I ripped up 20 percent of my lawn and planted two flower gardens, two sets of flowering shrubs, and seven vegetable beds. Now my daughter helps me pick eggplants, tomatillos, okra, and Swiss chard. My son can identify not only monarchs and tiger swallowtails but also which plants they like to eat. How? Because last year the butterflies were not here, and this year they are. We replaced the grass, which monarch caterpillars can’t eat, with native flora they can consume. It’s as simple as that. Milkweed and joe-pye weed were born to grow here. All you have to do is plant them and wait for the butterflies.

 

Wise Moves for a Lush Lawn

1. Get tested. “Spending money on fertilizer without a soil test is just guessing,” says Paul Tukey. Good soil is key to a great lawn, and a soil test can tell you what’s in the dirt and what’s missing. For a test, call your county extension office (a national network of agriculture experts).

2. Plant clover with your grass. Clover competes with weeds and fixes nitrogen in the soil. John Bochert, a lawn and garden specialist in York, Maine, recommends a seed mix of white clover, perennial rye (it germinates quickly), fescue, and bluegrass.

3. Mow high, and leave the clippings. Taller grass provides more leaf for photosynthesis, develops deeper roots, and resists weeds. The clippings act as fertilizer. “Lawns mowed at four inches are the most weed-free,” Tukey says. “If you did only one thing, adjusting your mower height would be it.”

4. Cut back on watering. Frequent watering leads to shallow roots, so “water once a week if at all,” says Tukey

5. Apply compost. “Weeds need light to grow,” Tukey says. “Spreading compost on a lawn in the spring prevents weed seeds from germinating.”

6. Listen to weeds … “Weeds are nothing if not messengers,” says Tukey. “Dandelions are telling you the ground needs more calcium. Plantains are telling you the ground is too compact and needs aerating.”

7. … and to insects. Beneficial nematodes, which are microscopic worms, eat some 200 species of insects, including grubs that become Japanese beetles; you can buy them from farm and garden stores. Mix them in water, and spray them on your lawn.

 

 

 

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The Burn Pits of Iraq and Afghanistan

The United States military is utilizing burn pits to dispose military waste throughout their bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are highly toxic locations and pose a significant health hazard to the military and the public living in the communities surrounding them. Pregnant women and children under the age of three are at significant health risk from these burn site locations. In fact, pound-for-pound, children breathe 50 percent more air than do adults, and as a result, our children inhale a greater percentage of harmful air contaminants. The science of incinerators is well known and should be stated. Burn pits are unlike incinerators, in that they contain no filters or filtration systems to capture the most lethal contaminants in the burning process.

Sandra Steingraber explains the science of incinerators in Living Downstream. Keep in mind that Burn Pits do not contain those filters.

No matter how improved or what they are called, incinerators present two problems that landfills do not. First, incinerators only transform garbage; they don’t provide a final resting place for it. There remains the question of where to put the ashes. Second, these cavernous furnaces create, out of the ordinary garbage they are stoked with, new species of toxic chemicals. In addition to producing electricity, they generate hazardous waste….

Moreover, the process of burning concentrates into the ash whatever hazardous materials are present in the original refuse. Heavy metal, such as mercury, lead, and cadmium, for example, are not destroyed by fire. Occurring as ingredients in household batteries, lightbulbs, paints, dyes, and thermometers, they are absolutely persistent. Air pollution control depends on the ability of an incinerator’s cooling chambers to condense these metals onto fine particles, which are then caught in special filters.

Once again, the irony of trade-offs becomes readily apparent: the less air pollution, the more toxic ash. An incinerator burning eighteen boxcars of trash per day, for example, produces about ten truckloads of ash per day. The trucks must then rumble out onto the highways, hauling their poisonous cargo through all kinds of weather. Once ensconced in special burying grounds, incinerator ash, of course, presents a hazard to groundwater.

The second problem is more an issue of chemistry than physics. Somewhere between the furnaces and the top of the stack, on the slippery surfaces of fly ash particles, in the crucible of heating and cooling, carbon and chlorine atoms rearrange themselves to create molecules of dioxins and their closely related organochlorine allies, the furans.

There are many dozens of dioxins and furans, but, as with snowflakes, their individual chemical configurations are all variations on a theme. Recall that benzene consists of a hexagonal ring of carbon atoms. This ring can then be studded with chlorine atoms. Two chlorinated benzene rings bonded directly together form a polychlorinated biphenyl, a PCB. By contrast, two chlorinated benzene rings held together by a single atom of oxygen and a double carbon bond are called a furan. A pair of chlorinated benzene rings linked by two oxygen atoms form a dioxin. There are 135 furans and 75 dioxins, each with a different number and arrangement of attached chlorines.

Dioxins and furans behave similarly in the human body, and they all to some degree elicit the set of biological effects described earlier. The most poisonous by far, however, is the dioxin known as TCDD. This particular molecule bears four chlorine atoms, each bonded to an outer corner. Because these points of attachment are located on the carbon atoms numbered 2,3,7, and 8, its full name is a mouthful. 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin. Imagine looking down from an airplane window at a pair of skydivers in a free fall, both hands joined together. Their geometry provides a reasonable impersonation of a TCDD molecule: the divers’ linked arms represent the double oxygen bridge, their bodies the benzene rings, and their splayed, outstretched legs the four chlorine atoms.

TCDD is scary because it is so stable. The symmetrical arrangement of its chlorine legs prevents enzymes–ours or any other living creature’s–from breaking TCDD apart. In human tissues, TCDD has a half-life of at least seven years. As we shall see, this particular geometry also allows TCDD admission into a cell’s nucleus and access to its DNA.

Ascertaining dioxin’s contribution to human cancers is one of the more frustrating challenges for public health researchers. Because dioxin is so potent at such vanishingly small levels, exposure is expensive to measure. Because it is so widely distributed, there remain no populations to serve as unexposed controls. Because dioxin so often rides the coattails of other carcinogens, confounding factors abound. U.S. military personnel exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, for example, were simultaneously exposed to 2,4-D and dioxin-contaminated 2,5,5-T, as noted in Chapter Three.

Animal studies provide a complex set of clues. In the laboratory, dioxin is an unequivocal carcinogen. As the dioxin researcher James Huff once noted, “In every species so far exposed to TCDD….. and by every route of exposure, clear carcinogenic responses have been found.” These include cancers of the lung, mouth, nose, thyroid gland, adrenal gland, lymphatic system, and skin. Dioxin also causes liver cancer in rats and mice, but it does so more often in females. Female rats whose ovaries have been removed, however, tend not to develop liver cancer when exposed to dioxin. On the other hand, they are far more likely to succumb to lung cancer. Clearly, an organism’s own internal hormones modulate dioxin’s carcinogenic powers, but through some unclear means.
(Portions from pages 215 – 223)

The use of burn pits as a military waste disposal method should immediately be banned and current burn pit sites closed to pubic. An assessment of the current health situation of employees who have worked, and are currently working in the burn bits, as well as the communities surrounding burn pits needs to be conducted.  Groundwater testing must occur to determine if water supplies are currently contaminated.

Joseph Hickman’s book, The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers currently contains more than sufficient documentation of health impacts many are already experiencing.

In the opening chapter of this new book, Joseph Hickman, a former U.S. Marine and Army sergeant, shares the brief and tragic life story of one Iraq War veteran. In a nutshell, a healthy young man shipped off to Iraq, was stationed at a U.S. military base where he was exposed to a constant stream of toxic smoke, returned home with horrible respiratory problems, was denied care by the VA, developed brain cancer and died.

Thousands of soldiers have suffered similar fates since serving in the vicinity of the more than 250 military burn pits that operated at bases throughout Iraq and Afghanistan. Many who haven’t succumbed to their illnesses yet have passed along the legacy of their poisoning to their children. “The rate of having a child with birth defects is three times higher for service members who served in those countries,” according to the book.

Currently at the US Department of Veterans Affairs states, “At this time, research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits.”

The science of incinerators is known and those serving in the military services in the past have had more than enough experience with the uphill battle to cover the health costs of injuries they’ve sustained from Agent Orange and Camp Lejeune. It’s time to prevent the injuries from occurring in the first place or this nation is no longer deserving of having a military force.  The Iraqi citizens deserve to live in a healthy environment where their children can grow up without cancer and birth defects from our military contamination. Vietnam is still reeling from generations of birth defects from our war there. It’s time to stop the continued generational holocaust of people here and abroad.

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Operation Paperclip by Annie Jacobson (Excerpts regarding Hitler’s Chemists – Fritz Hoffmann)

Hitler’s Chemists

Fritz Hoffmann

This nerve agent was code-named VX (the V stood for venomous)–a battlefield killer that was three times more toxic than sarin when inhaled and one thousand times more lethal when it came into contact with the skin. Ten milligrams of VX could kill a man in fifteen minutes. VX would be more effective on the battlefield than sarin ever would be; sarin dissipated within fifteen or so minutes, but when VX was sprayed, it stayed on the ground for up to twenty-one days. Now, in 1957, the Chemical Corps began producing VX by the thousands of tons. Operation Paperclip scientist Fritz Hoffmann moved over from synthesizing tabun at Edgewood to working on VX munitions. But Fritz Hoffmann’s more haunting legacy lies in the work he performed for the CIA’s Special Operations Division and the Chemical Corps’ antiplant division. Antiplant agents include chemical or biological pathogens, as well as insects, that are then used as part of a program to harm crops, foliage, or other plant life.

After the death of Frank Olson, the SO Division continued its LSD mind control schemes, But Sidney Gottlieb, the man who had suggested poisoning Frank Olson at the CIA safe house in Deep Creek Lake, Maryland, was assigned to also work on the CIA’s assassination-by-poison program. Fritz Hoffmann was one of the chemists at the locus of the program. “He was our teacher,” Edgewood laboratory director Dr. Seymour Silver told journalist Linda Hunt. “He was the guy who brought to our attention any discoveries that happened around the world and then said, ‘Here’s a new chemical, you better test it.'”….. page 384

“During the Vietnam War, I remember one evening we were at the dinner table and the war was on the news,” Gabriella Hoffmann explains. The family was watching TV. “Dad was usually a quiet man, so when he spoke up you remembered it. He pointed to the news–you could see the jungles of Vietnam, and he said, ‘Wouldn’t it be easier to defoliate the trees so you could see the enemies?’ That’s what he said. I remember it clearly. Years later I learned one of Dad’s projects was the development of Agent Orange.”

The army’s herbicidal warfare program during the Vietnam War started in August 1961 and lasted until February 1971. More than 11.4 million gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed over approximately 24 percent of South Vietnam, destroying 5 million acres of uplands and forests and 500,000 acres of food crops–an area about the size of the state of Massachusetts. An additional 8 million gallons of other anti-crop agents, code-named Agents White, Blue, Purple, and Green, were also sprayed, mostly from C-123 cargo planes. Fritz Hoffmann was one of the earliest known U.S. Army Chemical Corps scientists to research the toxic effects of dioxin–possibly in the mid-1950s but for certain in 1959–as indicated in what has become known as the Hoffmann Trip Report. This document is used in almost every legal record pertaining to litigation by U.S. military veterans against the U.S. government and chemical manufacturers for its usage of herbicides and defoliants in the Vietnam War.

Fritz Hoffmann’s untimely death came like something out of a Special Operations Division’s Agent Branch playbook. He suffered a serious illness that came on quickly, lasted for a relatively short time, and was followed by death. On Christmas Eve 1966, Fritz Hoffmann was diagnosed with cancer. Racked with pain, he lay in bed watching his favorite television shows–“Cowboy westerns and Rod Serling in the Twilight Zone,” Gabriella Hoffmann recalls. One hundred days later, Fritz Hoffmann was dead. He was fifty-six years old.

page 387 – 388

Also in the first three months of the CIA’s existence, the National Security Council issued Directive No. 3, dealing specifically with the “production of intelligence and the coordination of intelligence activities within the intelligence community.” The National Security Council wanted to know who was producing what intelligence and how that information was being coordinated among agencies. In the opinion of the CIA, “the link between scientific planning and military research on a national scale did not hitherto exist.” The result was the creation of the Scientific Intelligence Committee (SIC), chaired by the CIA and with members from the army, the navy, the air force, the State Department, and the Atomic Energy Commission. “Very early in its existence the SIC undertook to define scientific intelligence, delineate areas of particular interest and establish committees to handle these areas,” wrote SIC chairman Dr. Karl Weber, in a CIA monograph that remained classified until September 2008. “Priority was accorded to atomic energy, biological warfare, chemical warfare, electronic warfare, guided missiles, aircraft, undersea warfare and medicine” –every area involving Operation Paperclip scientists. Each scientific intelligence subcommittees were created, one for each area of warfare.

Despite the urgency. the JIOA’s plan to make Operation Paperclip over into a long-term program was still at a standstill. By the spring of 1948, half of the one thousand German scientists bound for America had arrived, but not a single one of them had a visa. Troublemaker Samuel Klaus was gone from the State Department, but the JIOA could still not get the visa division to make things happen fast enough. On May 11, 1948, military intelligence chief General Stephen J. Chamberlin, the man who had briefed Eisenhower in 1947, took matters into his own hands. Chamberlin went to meet FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to enlist his help with visas. Cold War paranoia was on the rise, and both men were staunch anti-Communists. The success of Operation Paperclip, said Chamberlin, was essential to national security. The FBI had the communists to fear, not the Nazis. Hoover agreed. Paperclip recruits needed the promise of American citizenship now more than ever, Chamberlin said, before any more of them were stolen away by the Russians.. three months later, the first seven scientists had U.S. immigration visas.

Pages 315 – 316

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VA Agent Orange Studies Master List
VA Agent Orange studies

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Retirement Heist by Ellen E. Schultz.

Death Benefits: An Insurable Interest

Over time, life insurance began morphing from a tax shelter into a finance tool for executive pay. For decades, if an individual or company wanted to buy life insurance on someone, they had to have an “insurable interest in the person,” that is, the beneficiary of the policy would be directly affected by the insured’s death. This rule existed for obvious reasons: a skydiver, race car driver, or coal miner–and profit from his demise. And if he didn’t die soon enough, the policyholder would have an incentive to push him over a cliff.

Initially, companies bought policies to protect them from the deaths of certain executives, or “key” employees. It made sense for partners in law and accounting firms to buy life insurance on each other. But encouraged by insurance brokers, companies began buying it on broad swaths of their employees, because by insuring thousands of employees, not just “key men,” the companies can place greater sums in life insurance contracts.

Dow Chemical, the Midland, Michigan, company known for its manufacturing of napalm, breast implants, and Agent Orange, was initially skeptical. An internal memo noted that, except for top-paid executives, it was “doubtful that Dow has an insurable interest in any of its employees.” But it overcame its qualms and by 1992 had purchased life insurance policies on more than 20,000 employees.

Congress had no idea how widespread this practice had become until someone ratted on them. In 1995, a brown envelope was left on the desk of Ken Kies, chief of staff at the Joint Tax Committee. The envelope contained a list of companies that had bought life insurance on employees–along with the calculations showing that a company might take in $1.2 billion over ten years by insuring 50,000 of its employees. It also noted that from 1993 to 1995, Wal-Mart had taken out insurance on 350,000 workers.

Lawmakers did the math and were appalled. They weren’t concerned about whether Wal-Mart had an insurable interest in its stock clerks and store greeters, but they did care a lot about the loss of tax revenue. Companies were borrowing money from policies and deducting the interest. The IRS deemed that the leveraged COLI (corporate-owned life insurance) taken out by seven hundred companies were sham transactions with no business purpose other than to score tax breaks. It filed a flurry of tax court cases, and companies subsequently took big charges for the disallowed deductions for interest on policy loans; among them were American Greetings, the Brooklyn, Ohio, maker of Tender Thoughts brand greeting cards and owners of Holly Hobbie and Care Bears licenses, and W.R. Grace, the Columbia, Maryland, manufacturer of building materials, which took out life insurance policies on its workers while defending thousands of asbestos-related lawsuits.

Within minutes of the interest-deduction phase-out, companies found a way around it. Instead of borrowing money from insurance companies, they simply borrowed it elsewhere. This was called “indirect leverage.” The practice was especially appealing to banks, which can borrow money cheaply. Banks bought fresh policies on employees and in 1997 were floating the idea that they could buy life insurance on depositors and credit card holders as well. Fannie May, the giant mortgage buyer, proposed to insure the lives of home-mortgage holders, but the plan didn’t go far. Congress nixed those ideas and tried to plug the indirect-leverage loophole in 1998. The Joint Tax Committee’s Ken Kies, in classic revolving-door fashion, had quit his government job and was now lobbying for the COLI industry, which led a campaign that blanketed Congress with more than 170,000 letters and faxes and ran a radio and newspaper ads targeting lawmakers as anti-business. The effort to close the loophole failed. Former House Ways and Means chairman Bill Archer, who had criticized janitors insurance as a tax shelter in 1995, joined the board of Clark/Bardes, the most influential COLI provider, in 2001.

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If the investments weren’t wrapped in an insurance policy, the company would have to sell the investments, then pay taxes on the gains, if it wanted to be able to report the income. Bottom line: Even though companies aren’t supposed to get tax breaks for funding executive deferred comp and pensions, they get essentially the same tax breaks—and accounting benefits—by taking out life insurance on workers.

TO DIE FOR

Though the investments are essentially locked up in the insurance policies, companies receive tax-free cash when employees and former employees die whether in car accidents, in plane crashes, or from illness. Even people who are murdered or accidentally killed at work produce death benefits for their employers.

Companies report the death benefits as income, though they usually refer to them by opaque terms. The St. Louis–based Panera Bread Company calls them “mortality dividends” and refers to a death benefit as a “mortality income receivable” in its filings.

Banks have the largest obligations for executive pay and pensions, so it’s not surprising that they are also the biggest buyers of life insurance on workers, which they call “bank-owned life insurance,” or BOLI. Industry consultants estimate that over the coming decades, banks will receive more than $400 billion in death benefits as their retirees and former employees die. Financial filings occasionally disclose income triggered by deaths. Pacific State Bancorp, of Stockton, California, reported $2.6 million in income from a death benefit in 2008. A subsidiary of Conseco, Bankers Life and Casualty, bought life insurance on employees in 2006 and got an almost immediate payout of $2.7 million that year after an employee died.

Most families have no clue that their relatives are covered. Irma Johnson certainly didn’t. Her husband, Daniel, had been a credit-risk manager for Southwest Bank of Texas, which was a predecessor to Amegy Bank. He was diagnosed with two cancerous brain tumors in 1999 and underwent two surgeries and radiation treatment that initially impaired his speech and left him unable to walk. He eventually returned to work, but in 2000 the bank criticized his communication skills and job performance and demoted him.

Despite the demotion, in May 2001, a manager took Daniel aside and told him that the compensation committee of the board of directors had selected him to be eligible for supplemental life insurance of $150,000. All he had to do was sign an agreement to receive the coverage, and a consent form authorizing the bank to purchase an insurance policy on his life. Four months later, the bank fired him. When Daniel died in August 2008, his family received no life insurance death benefits, because the company had terminated the family’s policy when it fired him.

Irma Johnson says her husband didn’t have the “necessary capacity” to make financial decisions when he signed the agreement in 2001, and that the bank should have told him how much it would get when he died. She sued in state court in Houston in February 2009; under Texas law, material omissions can constitute a form of fraud. During the proceedings, Irma learned that the bank, which maintained that it had bought the policies to offset the cost of providing “employee benefits,” had received $4.7 million when her husband died…

DEATH AND TAXES

Initially, insurance agents touted the death benefits as the most appealing feature of their plans, and some employers were disappointed when employees didn’t die quickly enough to generate the anticipated “mortality dividends” for that year. In a confidential memo in 1991, an insurance agent wrote to Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Co. that American Electric Power (20,441 employees covered), American Greetings (4,000), R.R. Donnelley (15,624), and Procter & Gamble (14,987) were “acutely aware” that mortality was running at only 50 percent of projected rates.

The Procter & Gamble plan covered only white-collar employees, which might explain its poor death rate (34 percent of projected mortality), the memo noted. But the disappointing death rate at card maker American Greetings was a puzzle, since the plan covered only blue-collar employees, who are expected to have higher mortality rates. (The white-collar employees were covered by a separate policy with Provident.)

Diebold, the agent wrote, had been expecting $675,300 in death benefits since adopting the plan; so far, it was expecting only one “mortality dividend” of $98,000. “Do you think that a mortality dividend of that size relative to their current shortfall will give them comfort?” the memo said.

A company the agent called NCC had a better death rate, he noted: People were dying at 78 percent expected mortality. “However, this includes three suicides within the first year which is highly unusual”—NCC had not had one suicide in twenty-five years until 1990. “Without these suicides, NCC would be running at 33% expected mortality. This fact highly concerns me.”

To keep track of when employees and retirees die, employers regularly check the Social Security Administration’s database of deaths. That’s how CM Holdings monitored its dead former employees. Page after page of a 1990 document called a “Death Run” lays out the names, ages, and Social Security numbers of more than 1,400 who would be worth more dead than alive. Also included was the amount of money the company was to receive when each employee died, even if the death occurred long after he or she left the job. Older workers would bring the company about $120,000 to $200,000 each, while younger workers would generate $400,000 to almost $500,000 each, the document said. (Younger workers yield bigger payouts because, based on actuarial calculations, they are less likely to die soon, so the premium amount buys more coverage for them.)

One of these workers was Felipe M. Tillman. Born in 1963, Tillman was an unlikely source of revenue for CM Holdings. A music lover whose taste ran from opera to jazz and even country music, he played keyboards and drums, sang, and was choral director at his Tulsa, Oklahoma, church. To make ends meet, he took part-time jobs in record stores, including a brief stint at a Camelot Music outlet owned by CM Holdings. As a minimum-wage, part-time employee, he didn’t have health coverage or other benefits. But CM Holdings nonetheless took out a policy on his life. It didn’t have to wait long for a payoff. Tillman died in 1992, of complications from AIDS. He was twenty-nine years old.

CM Holdings used the $168,875 death benefit it received when Tillman died to pay for executive compensation, among other things. Company documents also show that $280 went to Star County Children’s Services to help cover child support payments owed by a nephew of Camelot Music’s founder, who was working at the company at the time.

Another name on the company’s “Death Run” was Margaret Reynolds, of Uniontown, Ohio, born in 1936. Margaret was an administrative assistant and buyer for CM Holdings, making $21,000 a year. In the 1990s, she began deteriorating from the effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. In her final years, her adult children, who took turns caring for her, begged the company to provide $5,000 to pay for a special wheelchair so they could take their mother to church. “They said it wasn’t covered,” her son John Reynolds recalled bitterly. His mother died in 1998 at age sixty-two. Her family received a $21,000 benefit from a life insurance policy provided to employees by the company; CM Holdings received a death benefit payout of $180,000.

 

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