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SRSLY: Dr. Orange, I Presume

Your three-minute read on the best reporting you probably missed.


The best reporting you probably missed

David Epstein

Welcome to SRSLY, an (experimental) newsletter highlighting under-exposed accountability journalism. We’ll distill the important information from investigative reporting you probably missed, and deliver it to you in three-minutes-or-less worth of reading. Sign up to have it delivered to your inbox. (You can, of course, unsubscribe at the first whiff of a bad joke.)

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Everybody knows the guy in the office who used to keep a vial of Agent Orange by his desk, amirite? …. Wait, you mean, your office doesn’t have that guy? Ah, must be just the Air Force. That guy is Alvin L. Young — AKA “Dr. Orange” — an herbicide expert who, according to an investigation by ProPublica and the Virginian-Pilot, helped the military use the potent plant killer in Vietnam, and later discounted its health effects on veterans. Your four W’s:


According to ProPublica and the Virginian-Pilot, Young “more than anyone else, has guided the stance of the military and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on Agent Orange and whether it has harmed service members.” And that guidance has been to suggest, basically: meh, not even that many people were exposed, and what’s a little defoliant/neurotoxin among friends?? In a 2011 e-mail, Young suggested that complaining vets were simply “freeloaders” who wanted to “cash in” on compensation from the VA. Personally, my favorite get-rich-quick scheme has always been trying to cash in on exposure to “perhaps the most toxic molecule ever synthesized by man.” … And here you thought nothing was worse than gluten.

What else?

According to the story: “Over the years, the VA has repeatedly cited Young’s work to deny disability compensation to vets, saving the government millions of dollars.” Now, you may give Young the benefit of the doubt. After all, it can be difficult to link health effects to particular substances, so maybe he’s just standing by a tough scientific opinion. Except, boy is it hard to get your head around the memo in which he tells the Air Force to chop up and melt down the C–123 aircraft that once sprayed Agent Orange so that they can’t be tested anymore. Young went all caps on “NO ADDITIONAL SAMPLING,” and “IMMEDIATE DESTRUCTION.” But, come to your own conclusion, as Young’s letter is right here. Discuss.

What does Young have to say?

That he’s gotten a “few million” dollars in recent years for work as a consultant for the Department of Defense and expert witness for the Department of Justice. He also told ProPublica and the Virginian-Pilot that he’s being unfairly smeared and that most vets are probably sick because they’re old, and maybe because of other effects of war.

What does the Institute of Medicine have to say?

Much of the ProPublica/Virginian-Pilot story follows a suspenseful showdown between a vet fighting to prove that Air Force reservists who worked in planes that once sprayed Agent Orange were exposed and could be suffering for it. Last year, the Institute of Medicine, “a congressionally chartered research organization hired by the VA to assess the science behind the claims,” ruled that Young was incorrect in some of his scientific assertions, and the VA expanded disability benefits for those reservists exposed on C–123 planes.

They Said It

“Herbicide’s orange, violets are blue, when I hear ‘dioxins,’ I’ll think of you.” -a goodbye note to Alvin Young from a colleague; dioxin is the most toxic component of Agent Orange.

SRSLY Shortstack

We’ll just leave this here: “Your brilliant Kickstarter idea could be on sale in China before you’ve even finished funding it.”

Tweet of the Week

NBA star Derrick Rose took photos with jurors after they found him not liable in a civil rape case. File this under Dukakis-level bad optics.

Additional research by Kate Brown.

Tips are appreciated. The paper kind, or the green paper kind.

ProPublica does not vouch for the accuracy of stories appearing on SRSLY. We select, review and summarize key points from accountability stories that may not have gotten wide exposure. But we are not able to independently vet or vouch for the accuracy of stories produced by others. We will inform readers if we learn that stories have been challenged publicly or corrected.

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