Sunday, 6 January 2008

Agent Orange

Last night I attended a screening of the film "The Last Ghost of War", followed by a discussion with Dr Simone Nhu-Mai of the Vietnam Agent Orange Victims Association (VAVA). The film and discussion highlighted the horrific legacy that continues to be felt in Vietnam (in addition to Laos and Cambodia, as well as among war veterans from the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Korea) due to the spraying of herbicides, including the defoliant Agent Orange.

Nineteen million gallons of herbicide were sprayed on Vietnam between 1962 and 1971 in an operation code-named Ranch Hand, with the first spraying being personally authorised by President Kennedy. Agent Orange was the most commonly used of these herbicides which were sprayed by American forces in an attempt to destroy the jungle cover of their enemy, the Viet Cong.

And very effective it was too. Unfortunately the production process of one of the key ingredients of Agent Orange - 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid or 245T - was such that it was routinely contaminated with one of the most poisonous substances known to humanity - 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin or dioxin.

Effects of Exposure

Estimates suggest that between 2.1 and 4.8 million Vietnamese people were directly exposed to herbicides in the course of the war. But that's only the start of it: Many areas in Vietnam remain heavily contaminated by dioxin; people are daily exposed to this dioxin residue through breast milk, cow milk, and the consumption of contaminated meat and fish.

It is this dioxin residue that gave the film its name: "The Last Ghost of War". And it is a ghost with a horrible appetite: The effects of dioxin are numerous. The National Toxicology Program in the US has classified TCDD to be a human carcinogen. Dioxin has been scientifically associated with an array of human diseases including soft-tissue sarcoma, Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Hodgkin's disease and chronic lymphocytic leukemia. There has also been a suggested association with a number of diseases in the children of those exposed to it, particularly spina bifida. A good summary of the current state of received medical wisdom in this area can be found at the Institute of Medicine's website.

The nature of medical literature is, though, inherently conservative – it might be hard to scientifically prove that dioxin causes certain illnesses, but that doesn’t mean to say doctors would recommend you hang about while spraying is going on. Indeed the film presented an array of images which suggested that the effect of herbicide spraying has been wide-spread and devastating. Studies of those exposed to herbicides in Vietnam - veterans and civilians - encountered, in addition to the cancers listed above, numerous examples of children born with severe birth defects. Severe mental and physical disability is a (relatively) common occurence in the descendants of those exposed to the spraying. Inevitably the suffering of these children, and of their families, is immense and little or no financial support is available to them.

Prior knowledge

A tragic consequence of war, then. But in fact it's more than that. There is significant evidence to suggest that the chemical companies who produced 245T were aware of the awful consequences of exposure to dioxin.

In 1949 there was an accident at a chemicals plant in Nitro, West Virginia. This plant was owned by Monsanto who produced 245T there. The accident resulted in a number of workers coming into contact with 245T (and, consequently, with dioxin); these workers suffered immediate severe health effects in the form of chloracne – a severe skin condition – as well as longer term conditions including multiple tumours and nervous conditions.

Several studies were conducted of workers involved in the accident. Two of these were conducted for Monsanto and discovered no evidence of long term health problems, aside from chloracne. However one study was conducted independently of Monsanto and, instead, found a number of serious ongoing symptoms. Monsanto has subsequently been the subject of criminal investigation for falsifying its studies of dioxin exposure.

This was not the only incident of exposure to dioxin however – a number of such incidents occurred (see pp27-34 of this VAVA briefing) – at the plants of a number of chemical companies. These companies shared their findings with each other. For instance a Monsanto memo refers to information gathered from Dow:
“According to them [Dow] it is the most toxic compound they have ever experienced. It is presumably toxic by skin contact, as well as by inhalation. According to Dow is it 100 times as toxic as parathion. It is, likewise, capable of causing incapacitating chloracne.”

Another Monsanto memo from 1965 suggests that “very conceivably, [dioxin] can be a potent carcinogen.” A1968.

The government was also aware of the potential risks (although they may not have had the specific knowledge of the chemical companies). Dr. James R. Clary, a former government scientist wrote the following in a letter to Senator Tom Daschle:

“When we (military scientists) initiated the herbicide program in the 1960's, we were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide. We were even aware that the ‘military’ formulation had a higher dioxin concentration than the ‘civilian’ version due to the lower cost and speed of manufacture. However, because the material was to be used on the ‘enemy’, none of us were overly concerned.”

Clary’s reference to a military formulation is important: The production process of 245T was known to result in contamination with dioxin; however the level of contamination varied considerably. During the period in which they were supplying the US military with 245T the chemical companies took the specific decision to produce 245T for the lowest possible cost – and hence, tragically, with a large level of dioxin contamination. (see pp35-37 of the VAVA briefing)

The Law

In 1979 a class action was launched on behalf of 2.4 million American Vietnam veterans. Veterans are not legally able to pursue the US government for redress, hence the target of their law suit was the chemical companies who produced the herbicides for use by the US military. These companies were Dow, Monsanto, Diamond Shamrock Corporation, Hercules Inc., Uniroyal inc., T-H Agricultural & Nutrition Company, and Thompson Chemical Corporation.

In 1985 these companies finally settled out of court. They created a $180 million fund to compensate veterans whose medical problems fit specific rigid conditions. In particular, anyone suffering an illness following 1994, which was very likely considering the illnesses associated to Agent Orange could take 20-30 years to develop in some instances, did not qualify to receive payment under the settlement terms. In addition, a lump sum payment was provided for the Agent Orange families of veterans that died from diseases that may or may not have been related to Agent Orange, and quickly the $180 million fund was depleted by 1994. Just 50,000 Agent Orange members received a small compensation. (source)

In 1991 the US government passed the Agent Orange Act which officially recognised that Agent Orange caused certain specific diseases including various types of cancers; veterans are therefore eligible for support from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. In 2006, US Congress passed legislation providing health care, monthly disability compensation, and vocational rehabilitation to the children of Vietnam veterans suffering from the serious birth defect spina bifida.

A number of different veterans groups have taken the manufacturers of Agent Orange to court. In 2006 South Korean veterans won compensation from Dow Chemical and Monsanto; their victory came on appeal, and the amount of compensation was a relatively small $62 million – they had initially sued for $5 billion in damages. US veterans who missed out on compensation from the 1985 settlement fund have also attempted to gain legal redress, but have largely unsuccessful - this door now seems permanently closed. A Canadian class action is currently underway.

Of course the largest group of affected people is the Vietnamese residents of the area sprayed in the war. In 2004 the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA), along with a number of individual Vietnamese victims of the spraying filed a law suit under American law. The law suit is against 37 companies who produced herbicides for use by the American military in Vietnam (the US government could not be sued as it claimed sovereign immunity). The claim was dismissed in 2005 by Judge Weinstein, although an appeal of this decision is pending (the briefing document for the appeal is here).

So what now?

Clearly the people of Vietnam are in great need - the last ghost of war continues to lay a heavy burden on the shoulders of some very poor people. Help is needed to diagnose and treat medical disorders resulting from herbicide spraying. Families with disabled children need help to care for their children properly. Funds are needed to clean "hot spots" - areas which are known to be heavily contaminated with dioxin. Finally more studies are required of the medical effects of dioxin exposure on the Vietnamese population.

To make these things happen, funding and other support is required. So far the Vietnamese people have been unsuccessful (so far) in their attempts to gain compensation through US law – neither the US government, nor the chemical companies involved, have paid a single cent of compensation to the people of Vietnam.

At a government level, a Fawlty Towers-style diplomacy seems to be in operation: “Don’t mention the war!” To be fair the Vietnamese government is in a very difficult position – Vietnam was the target of a US-led trade embargo which was only lifted in 1994. This embargo caused severe hardship to the people of Vietnam. Since 1994, the Vietnamese government has pursued a policy of friendship with the United States – so, although it is seen to be supportive of the law suits brought by Vietnamese victims, it is not in a position to demand redress for crimes committed during the war.

Thus the onus for action is left with the people. Dr Nhu-Mai asked that people show solidarity with the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange, in whatever way they can. Grassroots groups in Vietnam have expressed their solidarity very practically, through a number of peace villages which care for children with disabilities thought to be caused by Agent Orange; one of these peace villages was started by a US Vietnam veteran.

In India, a natural avenue for solidarity is through the Bhopal Campaign, a group which helped to organise last night's event. This group is seeking redress for the death, injury and long-term illness caused by the 1984 explosion in Bhopal, India at a Union Carbide factory. Dow Chemicals, a former manufacturer of Agent Orange, took over Union Carbide in 1999. Dow is therefore held responsible for tragedy by victims in both India and Vietnam.

Further information can be found at a number of sites: The full briefing of VAVA's appeal to the US court contains a plethora of fact and argument. The Alvin L. Young Collection on Agent Orange has an enormous number of primary documents relating to this issue. In addition there are a number of different groups seeking to provide solidarity in different ways, in particular Collectif Vietnam Dioxine, VAVA and the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign.


Jim Jay said...

Really good post - thanks for this

Gill said...

Thanks Nick. Very informative, well written and chilling - "and it is a ghost with a horrible appetite"
One wonders if the film will be played in the Upper Street Vue, Angel. But it will more likely be screened in a handful of arty cinemas for one day.

Reminiscent of the crimes of Big Tobacco and so many others.