WASHINGTON — Federal health officials have agreed to investigate whether Maine soldiers were exposed to potentially toxic chemicals — including Agent Orange — while training at a Canadian military base from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s.

In a letter to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pledged to “conduct a thorough investigation of the situation” at the Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in New Brunswick, where herbicides and defoliants have been used for decades.

Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, said staff have requested documents and reports to look into the possibility that Maine veterans were exposed to harmful chemicals at the site.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) share your concerns about the health of our military veterans and this situation in particular,” Frieden wrote.

The CDC’s involvement comes several years after some Maine veterans began asking for a wider inquiry into whether some former service members’ health problems could be linked to time spent in Gagetown.

It also follows a years-long battle in Canada between veterans and the Canadian government about whether herbicides and defoliants used at the site posed a threat to veterans and nearby residents and, if so, whether to compensate affected individuals.

Located southeast of Fredericton, the Gagetown training base was used by thousands of Maine National Guard members between 1971 and 2006, with some units making frequent trips to the facility. In some years, the entire Maine National Guard spent time at the base.

“Just about every unit in the state of Maine has been there,” Peter Ogden, director of the Maine Bureau of Veterans Services, said Wednesday.

More than 100 former service members from Maine have filed claims with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, seeking disability benefits because of health problems they believe could be tied to Gagetown. However, all of the applications have been rejected because the disability compensation is tied specifically to Agent Orange and the Maine service members spent time in Gagetown years after the toxic defoliant was applied to the land.

Still, there is concern in Canada, Maine and other New England states that sent troops to Gagetown that types of herbicide and defoliants other than Agent Orange that were used for decades at the base could be causing health problems in veterans.

Agent Orange, a Vietnam War-era defoliant linked to cancer, Hodgkin’s disease and other serious diseases, was applied to parts of the Gagetown base only over several days in 1966 and 1967. Canadian officials acknowledge using large quantities of other herbicides and defoliants — some now linked to cancer and other disease — over several decades.

In 2007, Canadian officials agreed to $20,000 payments to veterans who served at Gagetown during the Agent Orange spraying period and could show possible health effects; but neither the Canadian nor the U.S. government have extended those benefits to soldiers who served later.

In a June 2012 letter to the head of the ATSDR, Collins urged the agency to conduct a detailed analysis of the potential health risks from the other chemicals used at the site to Mainers who trained in Gagetown. The CDC’s Frieden made the agency’s pledge to investigate the issue in a response letter to Collins.

The possible connection between illnesses and other chemicals used at Gagetown is an issue that veterans in Maine and Canada as well as the Maine Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management have been raising for years. In fact, some of those veterans have complained that members of Congress from New England have not been vocal enough in pushing for a wider inquiry.

In an August 2006 “information paper” on the issue, officials at the Maine Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management laid out some of the unique concerns about the “bigger issue” beyond Agent Orange.

Although the other chemicals were approved for use as herbicides by Canadian government, that fact does not negate the reality that the nature of military training could increase the risk of exposure, the paper’s authors wrote.

“Maine National Guard soldiers dug foxholes, low crawled, slept in pup tents, and lived in some of these areas for up to 12 days at a time,” the paper stated. “Guard engineers graded roads where herbicides were used to keep brush growth down on the edge of the road; cleared brush out of and constructed bivouac sites; and conducted demolition and engineer missions all over CFB Gagetown. Artillerymen fired thousands of rounds into the impact areas and the detonation of those rounds put those chemicals back into the air to be dispersed wherever the wind took them.”

Collins and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, said they were pleased with the CDC’s decision to look into the matter.

“Protecting the health of those who were training to protect us is a solemn responsibility from which we must not walk away,” Collins said in a statement.

“I’m pleased that the CDC is now involved. We need an all hands on deck response to the concerns of Maine veterans who trained on this base,” Michaud said in a statement.

Kevin Miller — 317-6256

[email protected]

Twitter: @KevinMillerDC

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