The hidden legacy of Agent Orange, part 2

The use of “rainbow herbicides” led to a 1984 class action suit by Vietnam veterans and their families against chemical companies that produced these defoliants. The suit alleged that Agent Orange exposure resulted in cancers, other serious health conditions and birth defects in children of veterans.

Dow Chemical Company utilized the “government contractor defense.” That is, if Dow could prove the herbicides were manufactured to Defense Department specifications, and both parties were aware of the hazards presented by these defoliants, the company could not be held liable for health problems caused by the herbicides.

Arguing against Dow’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, veterans’ attorneys cited a then-secret 1965 meeting of chemical companies wherein Dow scientists warned about significant health dangers of dioxin. As reported in the New York Times, the veterans’ lawyers stated: “Since the mid-1960s, Dow had information that Agent Orange supplied to the Government contained large levels of dioxin, far in excess of anything Dow considered safe or necessary … What did Dow do with this information?” the attorneys asked. “It concealed it from the Government and asked others, it’s co-defendants, to do the same.”

In May 1984, seven chemical companies agreed to pay $180 million in compensation if veterans dropped all claims against them. (Settlement funds would eventually total $197 million.) Many veterans were furious the case had been settled instead of going to court and felt betrayed by their attorneys. They demanded the lawsuit be heard by a jury of their peers. A federal judge dismissed the veterans’ appeals stating the settlement had been “fair and just.” Consumer advocate Ralph Nader noted the “chemical companies got out of this with legal fees and small change.”

Of the 105,000 claims made after the settlement, approximately 52,000 Agent Orange exposed veterans or their survivors received a cash payment of approximately $3,800. A second component of the settlement provided $74 million to 83 non-profit social service organizations that assisted 239,000 Vietnam veterans and their families — just over $300 per assistance.

A 2009 Chicago Tribune article cited a 1990 report prepared for the Department of Veterans Affairs stating the military knew Agent Orange was harmful to armed forces personnel but took few precautions to limit their exposure to this chemical compound. The report quoted a 1988 letter from James Clary, a former scientist with the Chemical Weapons Branch of the Air Force Armament Development Laboratory. The letter was sent to then-Senator Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota) who was spearheading legislation to help veterans sickened with herbicide defoliants.

According to the Tribune, Clary’s letter stated: “When we initiated the herbicide program in the 1960s, we were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicides. … 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 supposed to be used on the ‘enemy,’ none of us were overly concerned.”

A 1990 House committee report alleged that officials in the Reagan Administration “controlled and obstructed” a federal study of Agent Orange exposure among Vietnam veterans. “The White House compromised the independence of the CDC and undermined the study by controlling crucial decisions and guiding the course of research” and “had secretly taken a legal position to resist demands to compensate victims of Agent Orange exposure. …”

In 2009, Alan Oates, a Vietnam veteran who chaired the Agent Orange Committee for Vietnam Veterans of America, noted that military personnel exposed to toxic herbicides have had little success since the 1984 compensation settlement.

No examination of the tragic consequences of Agent Orange exposure would be complete without looking at how this toxic compound has affected people in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. According to the Vietnamese government as many as 4.8 million people were exposed to this herbicide while up to 3 million individuals, as noted by the Red Cross of Vietnam, suffered the same maladies as U.S. military veterans and their families. The U.S. government stated these figures were unreliable.

I would argue these figures are likely too conservative for the following reasons: First, if 2.8 million American military personnel were unintentionally exposed to agent orange then almost 5 million Vietnamese victims is hardly an exaggeration as approximately 4.5 million acres were sprayed with rainbow herbicides — between 8 and 10% of the total land area of South Vietnam.

Second, dioxin and other herbicide poisons entered the food chain via rivers, fish, fowl, rice paddies, farmland and mother’s milk. In 1998, Canadian scientists found high levels of dioxin still existed in areas that were heavily sprayed. David Levi stated that “We should not think of this as a historical problem. This is a present day contamination issue.” Some parts of the Da Nang air base had a dioxide contamination level up to 350 times higher than international standards.

Third, Agent Orange sickened not only the people originally exposed (beginning in 1962) but many of their children, grandchildren and now, great grandchildren. Earlier this year the War Legacies Project in Laos reported that half of Agent Orange exposure victims are under 16 years of age. “There are disturbing clusters: five born with missing eyes” in one district, “a family with five deaf-mute siblings; an inordinate number of short legs, malformed legs and hip dysplasia …”

A 1998 study in Vietnam compared the health of children in one area that had been exposed to agent orange to children in another that had not been exposed. Children in the exposed area were three times more likely to have cleft palates, to be emotionally retarded and have extra fingers and toes. They were eight times more likely to suffer hernias.

In 2004, a class-action lawsuit was filed in the U.S against chemical manufacturers of agent orange on behalf of millions of Vietnamese. The suit was dismissed on the grounds that it lacked sufficient basis in this country and using herbicides did not amount to a war crime. After the dismissal a spokesman for Dow Chemical Company, stated: “We believe the defoliant saved lives by protecting allied forces from enemy ambush and did not create adverse health effects.”

A Civil War saying is as true today as it was during that conflict: “Rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” The ultimate tragedy of the Vietnam War is that via Agent Orange it continues to ruin the lives of so many innocent people — Americans, Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian.

How many sons and daughters of chemical company executives who profited handsomely from the production of Agent Orange served in Vietnam?

George J. Bryjak served in Okinawa and Vietnam with the First Marine Air Wing. He lives in Bloomingdale.


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