Wednesday, January 5, 2022

The hidden legacy of Agent Orange



All wars are brutal, but some are more savage than others in the number of people killed and how they died. During World War I (1914-1918) approximately 19.7 million people lost their lives — 9.7 million military personnel and 10 million civilians. Chemical weapons were used by both sides to kill over 90,000 combatants and injure approximately 1.2 million more.

Although the number of deaths in the Vietnam War — 1.35 million military personnel including 58,200 Americans, and up to 2 million North and South Vietnamese civilians — was much less than in World War I, the toxic impact of chemical agents was significant. During Operation Ranch Hand (1962-1971) the U.S. military sprayed approximately 20 million gallons of “rainbow herbicide” defoliants: agents orange, green, blue, pink, purple and white (nicknamed for the color on the barrels in which they were shipped) in Vietnam (primarily), eastern Laos and parts of Cambodia.

Approximately 65% of rainbow herbicides contained dioxin, one of the most toxic materials ever manufactured. Dioxins can cause cancer, reproductive problems (including spontaneous abortions) developmental problems, damage to the immune system, type 2 diabetes, ischemic heart disease and interfere with hormones.

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.”

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