Between 1962 and 1970, the U.S. Army, working under the label, "Operation Hades," later known as "Operation Ranch Hand," dumped tons of Agent Orange and other defoliants onto six million acres of Vietnam. The sign above the ready room of the 309th Aerial Commando Squadron, which had seven aircraft and went on spraying missions twice a day, six days a week - encouraged the spray flightmasters to do their jobs well. It read, "Only You Can Prevent Forests."
The Army's goal was to defoliate large areas of forest in Vietnam with Agent Orange, especially forests in those areas believed to be hideouts for North Vietnamese soldiers. Agent Orange and other deadly chemicals were also sprayed on food growing areas - land used to grow rice, melons, bananas, breadfruit, mangoes and other crops. The idea was to destroy the enemy's food supply.
Agent Orange was popular with the Army's defoliation crews because it was so effective. A dose of the chemical would send tropical plants into a cancerous growth spree until they got so big they would explode into limp nothingness. What resulted was two-foot bananas and tree-sized weeds amidst hundreds of acres of mutilated forests - all the result of Agent Orange. After the spraying, the jungles went silent. There were no more insects, birds, or other animals. The soldiers labeled Agent Orange-sprayed forests, "the land of the dead."
The soldiers who sprayed the chemicals and those who patrolled the forests afterward remember well the sickly sweet smell that lingered in the atmosphere. They might have guessed that a chemical that could cause entire forests to die off in a matter of days might have dangerous consequences for their own health. But it was wartime, and the soldiers were occupied with thoughts of bullets, grenades, shrapnel and of getting out of Vietnam alive.
There were reports early in the war that Vietnamese peasants living in the sprayed areas had a disturbingly high incidence of birth defects and unexplained illnesses. But such reports - coming from Hanoi - were quickly discounted by U.S. military personnel as communist propaganda.
Agent Orange's active ingredients were 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D - and with 2,4,5-T came a deadly side kick contaminant, dioxin.
Today, dioxin is known as one of the most deadly synthetic chemicals. Three ounces of dioxin placed in the New York City drinking water supply could wipe out the city's entire population. "Dioxin is the most poisonous small molecule known to man. It is alone one of the most powerful carcinogens known," says Mathew Meselson professor of biochemistry at Harvard. "We have not yet found any dosage at which it is safe, at which it has no observable effect."
Dioxin also appears to have a cumulative effect, Messelson said. "It is quite stable and is soluble in fat but not water, and will build up in body fat."
An estimated 130 pounds of dioxin was dumped on Vietnam before 1970, and some of that was inevitably brought home by the more than two million GI's who sprayed or patrolled the dense jungle forests of South Vietnam. When these dioxin-contaminated individuals lose weight, the dioxin breaks down and is carried into the blood stream, says Professor Barry Commoner, at Queens College.
Many Vietnam veterans have reported the now classic symptoms of dioxin poisoning: irrational emotional outbursts, numbing of the hands and feet, an acne-like rash covering the entire body, and sharp stomach pains.
"It now appears that dioxin may be a kind of toxicological time bomb," Commoner says, "and that people exposed to it may exhibit harmful symptoms [which] appear only years later."
Since Vietnam, other parts of the world have learned firsthand of dioxin's toxic effects. In Niagara Falls, New York, a chemical company dumped tons of toxic chemicals, including dioxin, in landfills throughout the city and deadly chemicals migrated out of the landfills, contaminating neighborhoods and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of families. In Seveso, Italy, a chemical plant exploded and dioxin spewed into the atmosphere. Animals died, hundreds of acres of land were contaminated, people became ill, women suffered spontaneous abortions, and the neighboring towns for miles around were evacuated. In the northwestern corner of the United States, where the U.S. Forest Service sprayed dioxin contaminated 2,4,5-T onto woodlands, residents in the nearby towns complained of high rates of miscarriages. A subsequent study of the area by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed the fears of residents. One study found that Alsea, Oregon had miscarriage rates almost double those of other, non-2,4,5-T affected cities in the state. Based on these and other findings, the EPA banned most uses of 2,4,5-T in the United States in 1979.
The EPA ban was handed down in 1979, almost 10 years after the U.S. Army stopped using the defoliant in Vietnam under pressure from environmental groups here in the United States. But Dow Chemical, the major manufacturer of 2,4,5-T in the United States, and the major supplier of the chemical to the Army did not have to wait for the EPA studies or for the tragedies in Oregon, New York, Seveso and Vietnam to learn about the dangerous effects of dioxin.
"Long before the advent of 2,4,5-T - in fact since the mid-nineteen thirties," writes Thomas Whiteside in his book The Pendulum and the Toxic Cloud, "the Dow people had known that various polychlorinated derivatives. of chlorophenols (as well as 2,4,5-T) had produced chloracne (a severe form of acne) -like symptoms among workers exposed to them. Dow's 2,4,5 trichlorophenol appears to have been no exception." According to Whiteside, when Dow began expanding its production of 2,4,5-T in 1964 to provide Agent Orange for Vietnam, 70 Dow employees who worked at the Dow 2,4,5-T factory in Midland, Michigan contracted cases of chloracne, 12 of them severe. The 1964 outbreak was only one in a long line of case studies of 2,4,5-T contamination.
According to documents revealed during the course of civil litigation against the chemical manufacturers of Agent Orange, Dow had for years been receiving reports of severe chloracne associated with the manufacturer of chlorophenols. In 1937, some 400 lumber workers using tetrachlorophenol developed chloracne, urinary disturbances, skin lesions lasting years, and marked hyperkeratosis. In 1949, 228 workers at a Monsanto 2,4,5-T plant in Nitro, West Virginia developed chloracne as the result of an industrial accident, and the chloracne continued to afflict workers at the plant for 20 years. The situation moved Monsanto's medical director to comment: "I don't want to be cynical, but are there any employees in the Department who don't have chloracne already?"
In the next two decades, reports increased of neurologic pains, heart disorders, chloracne, porphyria cutanea tarda, hyperpigmentation, and hirsutism and liver damage in workers exposed to 2,4,5-T in West Germany and the Netherlands.
On April 15, 1970, Julius E. Johnson, vice-president of research for Dow testified before a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce that the company knew about the dangers of 2,4,5-T well before U.S. fighting troops were exposed to Agent Orange. "Since 1950 we have been keenly aware of the possibility of a highly toxic impurity being formed in 2,4,5-trichlorophenol as a side reaction under conditions of elevated processing temperatures," said Johnson.
But Dow consistently claimed that it knew of no harm to humans from dioxin other than chloracne. In March 1983, Paul Oreffice, president of Dow, appeared on NBC's Today Show and claimed that "there is absolutely no evidence of dioxin doing any damage to humans except for causing something that is called chloracne. It's a rash." But in the spring of 1983, The New York Times reported that Dow documents made public during the court proceedings revealed another story. In 1965, when the government was purchasing millions of pounds of Agent Orange, Dow's toxicology director wrote in an internal report that dioxin could be "exceptionally toxic" to humans and that the company's medical director had warned that "fatalities have been reported in the literature."
Dow documents also revealed that on March 24, 1965, four chemical manufacturers met at Dow headquarters in Midland, Michigan to discuss the health hazards of dioxin. According to a scientist attending the meeting, Dow did not want its findings about dioxin made public because the situation might "explode" and generate a new wave of government regulation of the chemical industry. A second scientist reported that Dow officials had disclosed at the meeting a study which showed that dioxin caused "severe" liver damage in rabbits.
By mid-1983 more than 16,000 Vietnam Veteran families had taken their cases to federal court, suing Dow Chemical and several other chemical companies for billions of dollars in damages resulting from Agent Orange contamination. Veterans' groups estimate that of the 2.8 million U.S. soldiers who served in Vietnam, 40,000 veterans may eventually become ill or die from the effects of the toxic chemicals dumped on Vietnam. And these veterans may produce 2,000 children with deformities incurred because they were conceived by fathers who carried the poisons in their bodies, they say.
Dow Chemical and the other chemical company defendants in the case denied am liability in the Agent Orange cases and unsuccessfully sought to blame the government for the chemically-inflicted health problems. Dow sued the government, charging that if anyone was injured during Vietnam, it was the government's fault, not Dow's, and that since Dow was a war contractor, it was only following the government's orders. Victor Yannacone, attorney for the Vietnam Veterans in the Agent Orange case, called Dow's reasoning "utter nonsense."
"The government contracted to get war materials," Yannacone argued, "but under no circumstances did the government contract to have its own men poisoned or killed."
More than 20,000 studies on the medical effects of 2,4,5-T provide strong evidence of the chemical's potent toxicity. Most recently a Swedish study of paper pulp, forestry and sawmill workers found a highly significant five-fold excess relative risk for soft tissue sarcomas in workers exposed primarily to 2,4,5T and 2,4-D.
Nevertheless, Dow continued to argue in court and in the public forum that th: company could not bear the responsibility that the veterans sought to impose on it. One of the more revealing public defenses put forth by Dow came in the fall of 1979 when the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Albany, a Dow stockholder, wrote to the company expressing concern over health effects attributed to Agent Orange. The Diocese asked then Dow chairman, Earle B. Barnes, "what steps, if any, is Dow Chemical taking to eliminate or minimize risks related to this product?" In response, Barnes said "There is no product that we manufacture that we have more toxicology and health data on than 2,4,5-T and we consider it extremely safe."
The chemical had stirred controversy because it "became a symbol of the Vietnam War that some people have become obsessed with destroying along with anything else relating to that unfortunate experience," stated Barnes. So, dioxin, made famous by the war, was "picked up by a lot of the extreme activists among the environmentalists." The chairman of the board of one of the world's largest chemical companies concluded: "There are some very strong forces coming to do away with our agricultural chemical business."
In June 1983, Dow expanded greatly its public relations effort by announcing that it would spend $3 million on independent studies to try to show that there is no danger to humans from trace levels of dioxin.
But less than a year later, on May 7, 1984, only hours before the consolidated Agent Orange case was to go to trial, seven chemical companies, including Dow, agreed in an out of court settlement to pay $180 million to 16,000 veterans and their dependents. Many veterans, who sought a public airing of the evidence against the chemical companies, were disappointed with the settlement. "We wanted our day in court," former Marine Corps infantryman David P. Martin told reporters, "I want the truth to be told and the truth to come out."
"We were sold out," charged Rena Kopystenski, a spokesperson for the National Vietnam Veterans Network. "The seven companies...got out of this for under $30 million apiece. That's not much for the thousands of lives and babies that they've destroyed."
The settlement is currently on appeal.