by Linda Conner Lambeck, Connecticut Post (Bridgeport, CT)
BRIDGEPORT — Arthur W. Galston did not invent Agent Orange.
He didn’t even get credit for its model, a defoliant he developed as a University of Illinois grad student in 1943 before he rushed off to war without getting a patent.
Yet four decades after the toxic compound began ravaging plants, and then people, Galston speaks about the topic like a man out to make amends.
“I feel this responsibility,” Galston, who lives in Orange, said recently during a lecture at Housatonic Community College art gallery.
At the HCC art gallery, surrounded by a black-and-white photo exhibit depicting people poisoned by Agent Orange, Galston urged those in the small audience planning careers in science to know that anything they do could some day be used in a harmful way.
“Look at me — I was a botanist,” said Galston. “I inadvertently found something which, further developed, was used as an instrument of war.”
All these years later, Galston, 85, a scientist and professor emeritus at Yale University, teaches bio-ethics, a discipline that examines the social and ethical consequences of scientific research.
His lecture drew people new to the topic as well as people fighting to get reparations for the victims of Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant used to clear the jungle during World War II and the Vietnam War.
It was later blamed for cancer and a host of other ailments.
“I never knew,” said Katrina Haravata, 19, a Housatonic student originally from the Philippines, who came to hear Galston after her curiosity was sparked by the photo exhibit.
Galston told her Agent Orange was named after the orange stripe painted around the 55-gallon drums used to store the chemical.
Also attending were Hau Nguyen and Tuan Le, journalists from a Vietnam news agency; Thu Nguyen, a Vietnamese national who suspects family members were contaminated with Agent Orange; and Constantine Kokkoris, an attorney representing Vietnamese individuals suing the Dow Chemical Co. and others over Agent Orange.
The case was dismissed in a Brooklyn, N.Y., federal court in March and is now being appealed. Galston is sympathetic but questions whether they can prove their case in court.
“I will do everything I can to help, but it’s a tough job. It’s not going to be easy to convince a court of law,” he said.
Although Vietnamese scientists have good statistical data to show people in villages that were sprayed with Agent Orange have much higher rates of cancer and malformed babies, the scientific data to confirm that Agent Orange was the cause are scarce.
“You cannot experiment on humans,” he said.
Agent Orange got its start as a defoliant during World War II when scientists discovered they could regulate the growth of plants through the infusion of various chemicals and hormones. The military was out to get rid of dense forests that often shielded the enemy.
Galston, a graduate student working on a doctorate at the University of Illinois, wasn’t trying to kill plants, just hasten the growth of soybeans in Illinois’ short summers.
He was successful in finding a compound that produced flowering two weeks earlier. But he discovered if he used too high a concentration, it also made the leaves fall off as he noted in his thesis before heading off to serve in World War II.
He returned to find that someone else had read his work and had the idea patented. His compound and others were the basis for Agent Orange.
By the time the Vietnam War arrived, it was ready for use. Millions of gallons were sprayed over Vietnam from 1961 to 1970, exposing the Ho Chi Minh trail and other enemy passageways and causing a tremendous amount of ecological damage.
Valuable teak trees and mangrove swamps along the estuaries of the delta south of Saigon were stripped and remain so to this day.
Once aware of the ecological damage the chemical was causing, Galston and other scientists went to Vietnam.
They began to wonder about the effects on people and animals. When they returned, a committee was formed to study the impact of the spraying.
A November 1967 study Galstonled was unable to come to firm conclusions about Agent Orange but advised its continued use might “be harmful” and have unforeseen consequences.
The spraying was stopped in 1970 after Galston and others successfully appealed to the Nixon administration.
“That was an important victory,” he said, adding that the war continued until 1975, and the decision to stop using Agent Orange “probably averted a good deal of damage.”
Still, damage has run into the billions. To this day, the United States has not spent $1 in aid to restore any of the affected areas, Galston said.
“I consider it a matter of conscience that our wealthy country, having produced so much damage, should take some action,” he said.
In 1990, Galston helped to organize a Bioethics Project at Yale and is a member of the Society for Social Responsibility in Science. He has had more than 300 scientific articles published.
“Agent Orange: Collateral Damage in Vietnam,” a photographic exhibit by Magnum photographer Philip Jones Griffith, runs through Jan. 13 in the Housatonic Museum of Art.