Featured image: U.S. Air Force Nurse Joan (Newberry) Duffy addresses International Conference in Hanoi, Vietnam in March 2006. Joan died on November 17th of that year from Agent Orange related cancer.
Published in the VAORRC Newsletter, November 2006
Today, I will be speaking to you about one of the most devastating materials that the United States military ever used: I am, of course, referring to Agent Orange which contained the highly toxic contaminant, dioxin. The use of Agent Orange in Vietnam produced unacceptable threats to life, violated international law, and created toxic wastelands that continued to kill and injure civilian populations long after the war was over. Agent Orange was a true weapon of mass destruction and its use should be considered a crime against humanity.
Before I begin my presentation, I would like to tell you a little bit about myself…. I was commissioned a 2/LT in the United States Air Force Nurse Corps shortly after graduating from college. I was sent to a large military base called Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam a year later. While there, I was too busy to notice that I never heard a bird sing, and in fact, the only living things I remember seeing (other than people) were roaches: not too reassuring considering that roaches were reported to be the first things to crawl out from under the rubble at Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atom bombs were dropped. At the hospital where I worked, there was a brick wall outside the emergency room that was covered in dead vines. I learned years later that the perimeter of Cam Ranh Bay was sprayed with Agent Orange on a regular basis because it was considered such an important military installation. Like most Vietnam Veterans, I knew nothing about Agent Orange until years later when I read about veterans with health problems who had begun to make the connection between Agent Orange exposure and illness.
So how did this tragedy of Agent Orange begin?
During World War II, Prof Kraus, Chairman of the Department of Botany at the University of Chicago, discovered that a chemical named 2,4 D could kill vegetation within 24-48 hours by causing plants to experience sudden, uncontrolled growth. Thinking this discovery might be of some use in the war effort, Kraus contacted the War Department, but Army scientists were not interested in it at that time.
Civilian scientists, however, found Kraus’ discovery to be of use in everyday life after the war.
Chemical sprays that included 2,4 D were put on the market for use in controlling weeds in yards and along roads and railroads.
The US Army continued to experiment with 2,4 D during the 1950’s and late in the decade, they found that mixing it with another chemical resulted in the creation of an herbicide that had an almost immediate toxic effect on foliage. What they didn’t realize or what they chose to ignore, was that the second chemical, 2,4,5 T, contained dioxin, a molecule that the US Environmental Protection Agency would later call one of the most potentially dangerous known to man. The toxicity of dioxin is such that it is capable of killing newborn mammals and fish at levels as small as 5 parts per trillion (or one ounce in 6 million tons). It’s toxic properties are enhanced by the fact that it can enter the body through the skin, the lungs, or through the mouth. Once inside the body, dioxin rapidly binds to protein molecules in the cell membranes called receptors: the job of these receptors is to move substances into the cells. By binding with these receptors, dioxin is rapidly transported into the cytoplasm and nucleus of the cell where it then wreaks havoc for years to come. Dioxin literally modifies the functioning and genetic mechanism of the cell and affects a wide range of organ and metabolic functions. It is a potent multi-system poison that is virtually indestructible in most environments. One of the most dangerous characteristics is that dioxin is not water soluble, making it almost impossible to excrete: if it were water soluble, it could be excreted in the urine and perspiration. However, because dioxin crosses the placental barrier, levels of dioxin in pregnant women are reduced, sadly for the unborn baby. In laboratory animals, dioxin has been shown to cause cancer, birth defects and genetic damage.
Considering how toxic dioxin is, it is truly shocking that after extremely minimal experimentation, Agent Orange and other herbicides were shipped to Vietnam in 1961 to aid in anti guerilla efforts. These herbicides were used to destroy food sources and eliminate foliage that concealed enemy troop movements. On January 13, 1962, 3 United States Air Force planes left Tan Son Nhut’s airfield to begin Operation Ranch Hand to defoliate portions of South Vietnam’s heavily forested countryside. Nine months later, by Sept 1962, the spraying program had intensified, resulting in the defoliation of almost 9000 acres of mangrove forests. Over the next 9 years, an estimated 19 million gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed throughout Vietnam at a rate 6 to 25 times that suggested by the chemical manufacturers. The results of the spraying was there for all to see: over the door of the ready room for Ranch Hand pilots at Tan Son Nhut’s Airport in Saigon hung a sign that said “Only you can prevent forests”.
Unfortunately, the Agent Orange used in Vietnam was much more highly contaminated with dioxin than that used in the United States. This was the direct result of the US military pressuring the chemical manufacturers to speed up production of Agent O range because the military was using ever increasing quantities of the herbicide, practically with abandon. In an effort to work faster and increase production of Agent Orange, the chemical companies paid little attention to quality control issues and the Agent Orange destined for Vietnam became much more highly contaminated with dioxin as the result of sloppy, hasty manufacturing.
Unknown to the millions of American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians being exposed to the herbicides, the chemical manufacturers were well aware of the long term toxic effects, but they sought to suppress the information from the government and the public, fearing a negative backlash. Of particular concern to the chemical companies was Agent Orange which contained dioxin. Publicly they maintained that dioxin occurred naturally in the environment and was not harmful to humans.
Privately they knew otherwise, as evidenced by scientists involved in Operation Ranch Hand and documents uncovered recently in the US National Archives which paint a disturbing picture. There are strong indications that not only were the military officials aware as early as 1967 of the limited efficacy of chemical defoliation, they also knew of the potential long term health risks of frequent spraying and they sought to keep that information from the public. Dr, James Clary was an Air Force scientist in Vietnam who helped to write the history of Operation Ranch Hand. Clary wrote in a 1988 letter to a member of congress investigating Agent Orange that
“We were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in Agent Orange. We were even aware that the military formulation had a higher dioxin concentration than the civilian version due to the speed of manufacture . However because the material was to be used on the enemy, none of us were overly concerned. We never considered a scenario in which our own personnel would become contaminated with the herbicide.”
While the debate over the danger of Agent Orange and dioxin heated up in scientific circles, the United States Air Force continued flying defoliation sorties. People on the ground continued to live in a mist of toxic herbicides. They slept with it, drank it in their water, ate it in their food, breathed it in their lungs, absorbed it through their skin. Some of the US troops used the empty Agent Orange drums as barbeques: others stored food in them. Still others rigged the residue- laden drums for showers.
Finally in 1971, the US Surgeon General prohibited the use of Agent Orange for home use and on June 30, 1971, all US defoliation efforts in Vietnam were terminated.
As veterans attempted to settle back into civilian life, some of them began to develop unusual health problems. There were skin and liver diseases and what appeared to be an abnormal number of cancers to soft tissue organs such as the lungs and stomach. There also seemed to be an unusually high number of birth defects among children born to Vietnam Veterans. Some veterans experienced wild mood swings while others developed a painful skin condition called cloracne. Many of these veterans were found to have high levels of dioxin in their blood., but scientists, doctors and the United States government insisted that there was no link between their illnesses and their exposure to Agent Orange.
By the early 1980’s, the denials of the US Government, the Veterans Administration, the US military and the chemical companies regarding Agent Orange/dioxin toxicity began to fall apart as communities such as Times Beach, Missouri entered the public eye. Times Beach, Missouri was an idyllic little community about 20 miles from St Louis. Unknown to the residents of Times Beach, dioxin-laced oil had been sprayed on the town’s roads to keep the dust down during the 1970s. The contamination was so bad that the government decided that the only way to save the town’s residents from further damage was to buy them out and move them out. In early 1983, the US government spent $33 million buying the homes and businesses in Times Beach and relocating its 2200 residents. Three years later, in 1986, the Centers for Disease Control released a report that showed that mobile home residents located near Times Beach, were suffering liver and immune system damage as a result of their exposure to the dioxin-laced oil that had been sprayed on the dirt roads in 1971. Times Beach remains a ghost town even today because of dioxin contamination. Other towns and cities became contaminated as a result of chemical spills or manufacturing emissions: some of them needed to be evacuated like Times Beach. Love Canal in Niagra Falls, New York, Sevesco, Italy, Pensacola, Florida, and the entire city of Midland, Michigan have very high levels of dioxin. While the government was paying off residents of Times Beach because of dioxin contamination, it continued to deny that Vietnam Veterans who had been exposed to Agent Orange and dioxin were at risk.
All in all, many entities conspired to keep the truth about Agent Orange and dioxin covered up: the Centers for Disease Control, scientists, chemical companies, The White House, the Veterans Administration, the US military, especially the United States Air Force. In the end, the truth won out. The Veterans Administration has been forced to admit that Agent Orange exposure/dioxin exposure causes a multitude of health problems for which they must compensate veterans. These conditions include: cancers such as leukemia, soft tissue sarcoma, cancers of the lung, larynx, bronchus, trachea, prostate, lymphomas, myeloma, Hodgkins and non Hodgkins lymphoma. Other conditions for which veterans are compensated are: nervous system disorders such as neuropathy and sensory impairment, metabolic disorders such as Type II diabetes, liver and kidney damage, skin problems such as cloracne, The Veterans Administration also must compensate veterans’ children who suffer from mutations and birth defects such as spina bifida and other neural tube defects, cleft palates, hydrocephalus, esophageal and intestinal deformities, clubfoot, fused fingers and toes, and congenital heart disease.
Agent Orange is NOT a conventional weapon: it is, instead, a weapon of mass destruction. All international law on warfare for the past 100 years has attempted to limit violence to combatants and to prevent the use of cruel and unfocused weapons. International agreements and conventions have tried to protect civilians and non-combatants from the scourge of war, to outlaw the destruction of the environment and to protect the food supply in order to safeguard life on this earth. Agent Orange is precisely the kind of weapon prohibited by international law for more than a century because of its unconfined, death-dealing effects.
Surely it must be clear to any thinking human being that we can no longer afford to seek violent solutions to the world’s problems because our weapons have become so dangerous and toxic that they kill soldiers and civilians both during the war and for years and years after the war is supposedly over. I urge you as fellow human beings to seek justice for the victims of Agent Orange.
I implore you to do this for the sake of Vietnam’s children and grandchildren, but also for the sake of the world’s children and grandchildren. What we do now, here, to seek justice for the victims of Agent Orange could very well establish an international precedent that will hold governments and corporations responsible and accountable for their actions and protect future generations from the horror of such weapons.