Vietnam Veterans of America  
  The VVA Veteran® Online  
  homepipeAboutpipeArchivepipeSubscribepipeContactpipevva.orgVVA gifFacebookContact    
January/February 2024 -   -  

Hiding In Plain Sight

The Hidden Dangers of Repurposed Lumber during the Vietnam War

For many who served in-country, Vietnam may have been the ultimate do-it-yourself environment. Particularly at far-flung firebases or remote camps, the troops often made do with what little they had. (For “the finest outhouse” in Vietnam, built entirely from scrounged materials, see the September/October 2022 issue of The VVA Veteran.) And usually, there was nothing risky or hazardous about jury-rigging junk into creature comforts.

But not always.

Marine Capt. Charles S. Robb, President Johnson's son-in-law, shaving at a wash station made from salvaged lumber near Da Nang on May 22, 1968. (AP photo)

Indeed, if you wanted your own chair, say, or maybe a bookcase or table, your opportunities were to a great extent limited only by your carpentry skills. The wood from ammunition crates and pallets was plentiful and sturdy. In his book, The Vietnam War: One Man’s Story, author Randy Borden writes about how he and others reused howitzer shell crates to build furniture at his firebase, and as a result, “I’m pretty sure we had the swankiest bunker in Vietnam.”

Oddly enough, the wood was also seemingly impervious to the country’s intense humidity.

“I used to ask myself, why aren’t these crates ever moldy?” said Scott DeArman, chair of VVA’s National Elections Committee who, during his first tour, oversaw an Army ammo dump. Many of his fellow soldiers also used this wood to build furniture.

Turns out those ammo crates, handled at one time or another by countless servicemen during the war, had been treated with pentachlorophenol, a fungicide meant to preserve wood. Penta or PCP, as it’s often called, had been used since the 1930s, usually as one of two preservatives for protecting telephone poles (creosote was the other).

Three U.S. Marines sleeping on ammunition boxes during a pause in the fighting south of the DMZ in Gio Linh on April 2, 1967. (AP photo)

In 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency determined PCP was “extremely toxic.” But not until February 2022, more than two decades later and only after “the emergence of viable alternatives to PCP” for treating wood, did the EPA prohibit the use of PCP “to protect human health,” as the agency said in an announcement. By then the exact number of not just veterans and active-duty personnel, but also PCP-treatment-plant workers exposed to the chemical was almost impossible to ascertain.

Yet indications of its potential toxicity have been known since at least the late 1970s, not long after the Vietnam War ended.

The first major sign appeared at the Blue Grass Army Depot in Lexington, Kentucky, where trainloads of unused ammunition from the Vietnam War had been arriving and were being stored for eventual decommissioning. While the Army owned and operated the facility, employees were almost exclusively civilians from poverty-stricken areas of Appalachia. By 1980 many of them had developed illnesses and diseases with the initially suspected cause being exposure to PCP-treated wood.

“Liquid pentachlorophenol was just seeping off the floors of the rail cars that had carried the wood,” said Wilma Subra, a chemist and microbiologist who was part of an EPA quick-response team sent to investigate. Depot commanders let employees have the wood after ordnance was removed, and many of them, like many did in Vietnam, built furniture with it for their homes. “We tested people,” said Subra, “and all of them were seriously ill.” Diseases included various cancers.

empty crates
American ammo boxes were discovered in 2012 in the extensive Tunnels of Cu Chi, which were used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. (Courtesy Cindy Hopkins/Alamy)

A Discover magazine article about the incident reported that PCP was found extensively in workers’ blood and urine. However, little was then known about the health effects of PCP exposure, and, as Subra noted, “These were very poor people, so it was hard to say where their cancers had come from.”

After reviewing the data that Subra and her colleagues sent back to the EPA, agency officials decided PCP exposure involved no excessive risk – which caused Subra to quit. “That’s not what the data was saying,” she said. Her team was never allowed to share their data with the workers who were tested.

In 1991, the U.S. Army Environmental Hygiene Agency issued a report noting some eye-catching facts about pentachlorophenol, presumably confirmed after the events at Blue Grass Army Depot. While the Department of Defense was no longer procuring PCP-treated wood by that time, existing stocks “are significant,” the report stated. “Properly treated and dried [PCP] materials represent minimal safety, health, or environmental hazards. Personnel should, however, exercise extra care when handling these items because there may be small quantities of dioxins and furans present…” (Emphasis added).

As Subra explained: “When you make pentachlorophenol, the contaminants you make at the same time are dioxins and furans,” two extremely toxic substances that are contaminants of Agent Orange.

The report also noted that airborne PCP dust and crystals pose the most immediate potential threat to human health, stating, “Crystals are dispersed into the air during handling and transport of the wood. This problem is magnified in an enclosed space (e.g., ammunition storage magazine or railroad box car). Dust that settled on the floor is often dispersed into the air simply by walking into the magazine.”

Perhaps most significantly, however, the report recommended taking a series of precautionary measures when handling wood from ammo boxes and crates. For example, protective gear such as rubber gloves should be worn, and treated wood should not be cut, sanded, or planed. And this warning: “DO NOT BURN PENTA-TREATED WOOD BECAUSE OF ITS VAPORIZATION POTENTIAL.” (Emphasis in original.) Wood that wasn’t used to build furniture in Vietnam typically ended up in open burn pits. Similarly, Blue Grass Army Depot workers often burned it in their home fireplaces.

U.S. ground troops, surrounded by the ubiquitous ammo boxes, receive support from a Chinook helicopter carrying equipment and supplies at a position in South Vietnam, April 1970. (AP photo)

The report recommended establishing a “medical surveillance program” to monitor personnel exposed to PCP. It’s not clear whether such a program was ever established. Subra said she never heard of any such program.

By January 2000, an EPA summary of pentachlorophenol’s hazards listed the acute effects of exposure and stated unequivocally: “Pentachlorophenol is extremely toxic when ingested by humans.” Inhalation, the most dangerous exposure, “may result in effects on the cardiovascular system, blood, liver (jaundice), and eyes (visual damage and irritation).” It also listed chronic non-cancerous effects, which included inflammation of the upper respiratory tract and bronchitis, blood effects such as aplastic anemia, effects on the kidney and liver, and immunological effects.

Specifically regarding cancer, the summary said, “Case reports suggest a possible association between inhalation pentachlorophenol exposure and cancer (Hodgkin’s disease, soft tissue sarcoma, and acute leukemia - all cancers linked to Agent Orange exposure); however, concomitant exposure to other toxic substances may have contributed to the reported carcinogenic effects.” Nonetheless, the summary noted that the EPA had classified pentachlorophenol as a “Group B2, probable human carcinogen.”

When finally cancelling use of pentachlorophenol in the United States last year, the EPA held to similar language – i.e., exposure to the chemical “poses risks” but is still not causally connected to fatal diseases.

But cancellation is not the same as an immediate ban. Rather, the EPA has implemented a five-year phase-out of its use. Manufacturers can even continue to produce and sell PCP-treated wood until February 2024.

“Cancelling pentachlorophenol doesn’t make it go away,” Subra said. “The contaminants are still there.” She added with more than a little irony that in central Louisiana, where much of her work is now focused, all wood-treatment facilities ended up as EPA Superfund cleanup sites. Because the process of creating pentachlorophenol also produces dioxins and furans, “the blood in people in the community had three to four times higher levels of dioxins and furans than the national average.”

Asked if the Department of Veterans Affairs is aware of reported dangers of exposure to PCP-treated wood, a spokesman replied in an email:

“VA has reviewed the potential for pentachlorophenol exposure during military service. All available evidence suggests that DoD policies included several safeguards when handling treated wood to reduce exposure potential.

“Pentachlorophenol is not easily volatilized and, thus, would have become airborne, primarily, through disturbing the wood (e.g., sawing). While exposure through the skin could have been possible to some degree, good ventilation and hygiene practices, along with appropriate personal protective equipment, should have prevented the majority of routine exposures and toxicity problems.

“Pentachlorophenol toxicity is a much greater concern for industrial workers involved in the manufacture of the chemical in enclosed spaces; thus, it is now being phased out in favor of safer alternatives.”

Scott DeArman – tasked with overseeing an ammo dump – was never informed of any safeguards or precautions to be taken when handling PCP-treated wood. And people frequently sawed the wood to make furniture.

Asked if the agency has done or plans to do any outreach to veterans who may have been exposed to pentachlorophenol not just during the Vietnam War but subsequent conflicts as well, the spokesman replied that the VA hasn’t. “However, veterans are encouraged to file a claim for disability compensation should they feel like their long-term health has been impacted by their service.”

DeArman doesn’t put much faith in the VA, mainly because of a bad experience he had years ago. But he also thinks VVA could have been more aware. “I’ve been with VVA since it started,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of good. But I think this is one area we completely overlooked.”




-May/June 2022March/April 2022January/February 2022November/December 2021September/October 2021July/August 2021May/June 2021March/April 2021January/February 2021November/December 2020September/October 2020July/August 2020May/June 2020March/April 2020January/February 2020November/December 2019September/October 2019July/August 2019
2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016
| 2014 | 2013 | 2012
| 2010 | 2009 | 2008
| 2006 | 2005 | 2004
| 2002 | 2001 | 2000

----Find us on Facebook-Online Only:Arts of War on the Web
Book in Brief-

Basic Training Photo Gallery
Basic Training Photo Gallery
2013 & 2014 APEX® Award Winner

    Departments     University of Florida Smathers Libraries  
  - -      
  VVA logoThe VVA Veteran® is a publication of Vietnam Veterans of America. ©All rights reserved.
8719 Colesville Road, Suite 100, Silver Spring, MD 20910 | www.vva.org | contact us


Geoffrey Clifford Mark F. Erickson Chuck Forsman