Agent Orange

Better killing through chemistry

by Richard Alan-Leach

Z magazine, November 2000


Media coverage of the April 22 Earth Day enviro-fest contained a curious omission, given that the same month coincided with the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon (April 30). While noting Earth Day's 30-year anniversary, mainstream coverage elided the fact that its founder, former Senator Gaylord Nelson, was inspired by numerous anti-war teach-ins on U.S. college campuses in the mid-1960s. The anniversary might have inspired a mainstream journalist (working in an adversarial, "too-liberal" media) to entertain a reasonable line of association between these two events. Such a journalist might even have used the occasion to reconsider the use of "ecocide" as one prong of a strategy of total war in Vietnam. For example, teach-ins in both the anti-war and environmental camps largely ignored the policy of employing Chemical and Biological Warfare in Vietnam.

Between 1962 and 1971, Operation Ranch Hand sprayed 19 million gallons of herbicide, including 12 million gallons of Agent Orange, throughout South Vietnam. Beginning in the mid-1970s, Vietnam veterans who had sprayed the chemical began to complain of bronchitis, irregular heartbeat, nervous disorders, thyroid disorders, immune-deficiency diseases, liver and prostate cancers, and reproductive abnormalities of the kind that are now rife among the South Vietnamese. The military discontinued the practice in 1970. Dioxin, which emerged as an impurity in the manufacturing process of the 2,4,5,7-D herbicide, was discovered to produce birth defects in experimental animals as early as 1970, and it is customary to say that its use was discontinued as soon as this fact was discovered, yet its status as a probable carcinogen was established years earlier. Dioxin is actually a general term for hundreds of human-made compounds. The most toxic compound is 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin or TCDD, the primary toxin in Agent Orange. Dioxin is classified as one of the most toxic of a dangerous class of chemicals known as POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants). Dioxin impairs the central nervous system, the immune system, and is labeled an "environmental hormone" because it mimics hormonal messages to disrupt numerous biological processes.

Today, new studies ensure that Agent Orange is likely to lose its status as a "controversial chemical," and may become as infamous as napalm, as knowledge of dioxin's effects continue to spread, although not as quickly as the chemical: the bioaccumulation of these pernicious toxins proceeds apace, while the accumulating evidence on dioxin's toxicity is comparatively slow to be recognized. An apparent "act of faith" concerning the eventual discovery of a "safe" or permissible level of risk represents nothing more than continued submission to industry prerogatives, as a fixation on balance sheets encourages stonewalling on public health. While the immediate advantages-either in war- or profit-making-overrides all other considerations, the regulatory process is slow and painstaking. Worse, even "slow progress" cannot be counted on: conflicts between science and politics, or between honest research and industry PR, ensures that we sometimes move backwards.

By now the evidence of a major health catastrophe from dioxin is overwhelming, yet obfuscation and confusion continues to be sown by data diddlers, who may be credited for the fact that Agent Orange is still controversial in the United States, which has difficulty facing facts which industry finds inconvenient. For years, spin doctors have clouded the issues and sown doubts among lay people, fudging the data and slanting the science to dismiss the clear statistical association between dioxin and disease in peer-reviewed studies. In the 1960s, U.S. military policy was to downplay long-term health concerns about chemicals in order to assist their war effort; today, an analogous spin is underwritten by a chemical industry worried about lost profits due to a possible future ban on chlorine-based production. In both instances, the policy is identical: "act now, apologize later." In June 1998, the World Health Organization lowered its daily tolerable intake standard for dioxin by more than half. A common pattern, part of a general phenomenon, can be discerned: as techniques of measurement become more refined, the levels of permissible exposure must be continuously lowered.

The most recent acknowledgment of the dioxin threat is an EPA report leaked to the Washington Post on May 17, 2000. The most potent form of the dioxin group, TCDD (the main constituent of Agent Orange) has, for the first time, just been reclassified as a "definite" (not merely "probable") human carcinogen. This concession is long overdue. Adult-onset diabetes, chronic bronchitis, irregular heartbeat, nervous and thyroid disorders, and lower IQ in children are now firmly linked to this omnipresent chemical.

Recently, Canadian scientists located a heavily-defoliated valley located in the Central Highlands. Testing Vietnam's soil for dioxin residues, they found high rates of birth defects, deformities, and cancer. These maladies have been steadily increasing since the mid-1970s. Children living near the former U.S. military base at Bien Hoa have dioxin levels 50 times higher than children in Hanoi. Today, in South Vietnam, new generations of children continue to be born with spinal deformities, severe retardation, cerebral palsy, cleft palate, cataracts, club feet, and extra fingers or toes.

Herbicides were used to induce leaf fall for defoliating forests, clearing campsites, and exposing enemy supply lines; such tactics, even today, are regarded by many to have been comparatively innocuous-compared to napalm, free-fire zones, or assassination programs, for example. The standard argument is that they were effective at a time when the long-term environmental consequences were unknown. Apologists for herbicide use like to claim that because Rachel Carson's book came out in 1961, we didn't know as much then as we do now, pleading cultural lag. Yet, at that time, it was no secret that herbicides were lethal to people, livestock, and fish, and it was known, although not widely publicized by the military, that food crops were also targeted: in 1965, no less than 42 percent of the spraying was devoted to their destruction. It is often forgotten just how "effective" the herbicide policy actually was, since another goal was to turn civilians into refugees, forcibly re-locating them to areas controlled by the U.S.-backed Southern administration.

The use of herbicides for crop destruction was evidence that the U.S. was waging a total war against the Vietnamese. To starve the Vietnamese resistance by destroying rice fields was certain to lead to famine in the countryside. As the New York Times reported in 1965, a herbicide can destroy 60-90 percent of a rice crop. In Pentagon terminology, induced starvation was a "food denial program." Even the term "defoliation" was understood at the time to be a euphemism for widespread destruction of vegetation, with obvious implications for the environment. In an issue of Science (1966), Dr. Arno Mayer, a professor at Harvard, wrote that, "If crop destruction efforts are successful, they constitute a war measure primarily, if not exclusively, directed at children, the elderly, and pregnant and lactating women.... My point is that only bystanders will be hurt. The primary U. S. aim-to disable the Viet Cong-is not achieved. Our proclaimed secondary aim-to win over the civilian population-is made a hollow mockery."

This program operated as an ecological counterpart to the practice of indiscriminately firing M-14s into a village, in what U.S. soldiers dubbed a "mad minute." In both cases, the line between soldiers and civilians evaporated. In 1964, the Federation of American Scientists denounced the use of herbicides and charged that the U.S. was "capitalizing on the war as an opportunity to experiment in biological and chemical warfare." In 1967, President Johnson's Science Advisor received a petition signed by 5,000 scientists, including Nobel Laureates, calling on the president to terminate the use of chemical weapons, and arguing that their use was prohibited by international law. Planners later declared the practice ineffectual against the resistance, and noted that it "alienated people in the countryside," an obvious, if understated, conclusion.

Lethal chemicals discharged into a war environment 35 years ago continue to create new victims. The New York Times reported on March 30 of this year that researchers have uncovered "particularly strong evidence" linking the herbicide to adult-onset diabetes in Vietnam veterans. Prior to this, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) published three reports subsequently used by the Veterans Administration to determine eligibility for benefits. Recently re-named the Department of Veterans Affairs, it has agreed to compensate more than 8,000 veterans for a lengthy list of ailments stemming from exposure to Agent Orange, including Hodgkin's disease, respiratory problems, nerve disorders, prostate cancer and soft-tissue sarcoma, and a skin disorder called chloracne. It has also agreed to compensate veterans whose offspring were born with spina bifida.

Washington has finally begun to soften its policy on Vietnam, ending the trade embargo in 1994, establishing diplomatic relations in 1995, and gearing up for trade talks. Until recently, U.S. policy was to avoid "linkage" to any issue that might raise liability questions, and the Vietnamese were reluctant to move beyond muttering about needing research and humanitarian aid. Besides desiring access to American goods, they are also reluctant to jeopardize the tourist trade by publicizing health concerns: not surprisingly, as southern Vietnam features the most dioxin-contaminated areas on the planet. The Vietnamese estimate that there are approximately 1 million victims of Agent Orange among its 77 million people. The mainstream media long chose to ignore obvious contradictions in U.S. policy regarding the effect of Agent Orange at home and abroad. Instead, U.S. officials were approvingly cited when producing comments that were tantamount to doublespeak.

The abrogation of responsibility for public education by mass media is also responsible for jeopardizing public health. The mainstream media continues its policy of receptivity to biased research from scientific semi-literates whose industry-sponsored agenda is to allay public fears, confuse minds, and maintain profits, following well-trodden patterns of denial, obfuscation, and delay. Even the May EPA report, which concedes that dioxin is ten times more toxic that its own 1984 assessment, was downplayed by New York Times health reporter Gina Kolada, whose ideological commitments remain immobile, whatever the facts. The doctrine that environmentalists and other nefarious types are using "bad science" to mislead the public and to attack industry, and perhaps even undermine "our" industrial system, is entrenched.

For years the media turned a blind eye to U. S . government stonewalling, and the clear contradiction between granting compensation to U.S. veterans while continuing to claim that, as far as the Vietnamese are concerned, more scientific studies are needed. As journalist Bob Dreyfus pointed out in a recent Mother Jones article, unlike U.S. soldiers who drank bottled water and ate processed foods during a temporary tour of duty, the Vietnamese "were showered with Agent Orange, and then lived, worked, and breathed amid the residue of an especially virulent form of dioxin [which] infiltrated the food chain...passing from mother to child through breast milk."

Fortunately, alternative sources of information provided by the Internet are undermining the mainstream tendency to impart a puerile "what, me worry?" message. Community groups are making headway against disinformation campaigns underwritten by the chemical industries. Happily, growing recognition of this urgent problem has fueled countervailing forces from diverse quarters. Numerous global treaties and community action groups are presently working toward halting production of Persistent Organic Pollutants into the environment, while working toward the removal of existing residues.

The "acceptable" limit of exposure to dioxin is now exceeded by the amount North Americans are ingesting with beef, chicken, and dairy products. Additional exposure to dioxin has a cumulative effect, like exposure to radiation from multiple sources. This compounds the hazard. Yet, in the absence of full knowledge concerning the long-term effects of exposure to a variety of chemical or biological agents, the knee-jerk reaction has traditionally been to opt for continued testing-which amounts to a form of human experimentation, which has led to hundreds of thousands of extra cancer deaths, countless reproductive failures, degradation of the human gene pool, and new threats to health. The term "endocrine disruption" was unknown in 1990, although the effect of this hazardous process on human health was by then well underway. The "precautionary principle," advocated by growing numbers of concerned citizens and NGOs, places the onus for proof of safety upon industry, which is obligated to permit independent testing before adding further chemicals to the soup surrounding us. Yet, overruling democracy (even sanity) is the operative "processionary principle," which presumes industry's right to proceed without knowledge of the long-term public health or environmental consequences, deemed a lower priority than the pursuit of profit. The establishment media refuses to challenge the doctrine that "society's" gains outweigh the risks, although a refutation is easily accomplished. The burden remains with the public to prove a chemical is toxic (against, of course, a flood of industry PR and heavily-financed political lobbying).

Progressives have progressed: grassroots activism now operates on the assumption that such notions as "natural capitalism" or "sustainable development," have been discredited-an encouraging sign. The conservation movement has begun to return to its radical roots, rejecting market-oriented approaches to the environment and policies of "corporate compromise" as non-starters. Furthermore, expanding communication lines between diverse groups of concerned citizens is a sign of progress, and an opportunity for extending public education, empowerment, and activism. The dioxin emergency may constitute another wedge in this new period of revitalized dissent.

Grassroots activists and community leaders have benefited from the work of environmental justice advocates and sociologists to fight the plans of corporations and federal agencies to situate hazardous industries in their areas. We've gone beyond "not in my backyard" to a recognition of the linkages between the pitilessness of corporate power and toxic dumping at home and abroad. Whether the topic is toxic racism in Louisiana, or the sale of banned pesticides to third world nations, while well-worn arguments on the moral bankruptcy of such policies fall on deaf ears in high places, the ecological futility of business-as-usual must inevitably become clear even to the most vested of interests, but only with the help of pressure from an increasingly informed and justifiably alarmed public. For example, the paper, food, and dairy industries are feeling the sting of lost profits as an informed public applies pressure through boycotts and lobbying, relaying the pressure to their chemical suppliers. Behind the scenes, a search for alternatives to chlorine-based production is now underway by an industry ready to implement ecologically-viable alternatives to chlorine-based production, but only if new regulations make it necessary. Meanwhile, industry can be counted on to keep its official head in the sand until forced to submit to a higher authority.

With diverse groups focusing on both short- and long-term goals, even minor victories pave the way for fundamental change. The environmental justice movement, which began in North Carolina in 1982, found a correlation between "the location of hazardous waste landfills and the racial and economic status of the surrounding communities." The study discovered that three out of every four landfills were located near minority communities. In 1987, a Commission on Racial Justice report showed that the most significant factor in determining the placement of a hazardous waste site was race. Three out every five African-Americans or Hispanics live in a community housing unregulated toxic waste sites. It is a small but significant step to move from recognizing environmental racism to recognizing environmental class warfare.

Ecocide is defined as the deliberate destruction of the environment by pollutants or an act of war. Merely "changing one's lifestyle" is now understood to be an inadequate response to this engineered assault. Major structural changes are urgently necessary: the POP problem requires more than belated commitments to a clean-up, or the "happy-ending" of a successful lawsuit. Today, large numbers of concerned citizens recognize that the only group who still believes in "not in my backyard" are the corporate elites themselves, whose private backyards have thus far been unmolested. The widening recognition of the need for a major overhaul in the regulatory apparatus will lead to a radical extension of democracy, by placing the responsibility for proving a chemical is safe upon industry, with industrial application conditional upon the results of independent testing. Nothing less can provide a minimally adequate solution to this crisis, as is now widely understood.

Another lament inspired by the anniversary of the fall of Saigon concerns the loss of prestige that the "Vietnam syndrome" engendered. Yet the Vietnamese have their own burdens as a direct result of U.S. postwar policy. The U.S. was alone among 141 nations in refusing to endorse UN resolutions requesting priority economic assistance to Vietnam. Today, the Vietnamese continue to take casualties in the form of land mines, dioxin-induced stillbirths and hideous birth defects, the direct result of a massive and indiscriminate application of technological warfare. As the Vietnam War continues to claim new victims, the U.S. government is finally responding to the calls from former U.S. service-people for a systematic study of the effects of Agent Orange on the

Vietnamese, which will assist in evaluating the full extent of its effects on Americans. This knowledge will ultimately assist in formulating protocols for the elimination of POPs from the biosphere.

The anniversary also saw mainstream journalists adding insult to injury by jeering at "veterans and eager journalists flooding into Saigon to hear of the tremendous cost the war wrought on Vietnamese," which was apparently inappropriate-and badly timed, given that the U.S. has had only a quarter century for reflection. The continued focus on MIAs, trade talks, and recent debates on the propriety of former POWs-turned-presidential candidates still hurling epithets ("gooks") are the preferred topics over more vital issues such as the dioxin emergency and public health.

One can only wonder how long it will take for policy to shift towards some means of reparation, especially when the anniversary of the fall of Saigon becomes the occasion for self-congratulatory admonishments delivered to the former targets of U.S. interventionism. Perhaps an apology from the "American interlopers" can be expected at the 50th anniversary in 2025. Until then, the best the Vietnamese can expect is U. S. approval for beginning to tilt "our" way, and getting with the program, i.e., trade talks. This shift in the business climate is apparently leading to a new climate for talks concerning some form of redress and belated assistance to Vietnam, which continues to clear mines by detonating them at "safe" distances, a practice which removes dormant dioxin from the soil, continuing to spread contamination to humans through water and wildlife. More sophisticated clearing methods were not in the cards, as the U.S. effectively blocked assistance from other countries for years.

The 20th century saw humankind waging a continuous war against the planet by inflicting irreparable damage on the human gene pool from dioxin, plutonium, and uranium 238. In peacetime, a bevy of toxic chemicals have enhanced background levels of the same and other carcinogens, teratogens, and endocrine disruptors in a ongoing ecological war, whose far-reaching effects may be fully understood only after irreparable harm is wrought upon our species, among others.

Yet for policymakers, few lessons have been learned from the Vietnam and Gulf wars. In a bipartisan consensus, the "Vietnam syndrome" has been redefined to suit the interests of power politics. Originally, the term denoted the restraining effect of dissent on U.S. bellicosity; now, it means the achievement of quick victories before dissent can impact the majority, and, continuing the folly of Vietnam, still "substituting firepower for manpower," to ensure minimal loss of American lives-in the short term. Today, this means fighting a high-tech war. Former President Bush anticipated this shift with his remark, "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome." Bush's triumphalism was premature. The long-term hazards wrought by this "kicking" posture have yet to be fully appreciated by policymakers. An irreparably damaged gene pool is an unacceptable form of collateral damage. From plutonium to depleted uranium and chemical and biological warfare, short-term cost-benefit analyses must give way to long-range thinking about persistent toxins which ignore borders and peace treaties.

Recent re-alignments between the West and Russia, China, and now Vietnam, reminds us that yesterday's designated enemy will likely be tomorrow's friend and trading partner. When former enemies open for business, the nature of their political ideologies becomes irrelevant to Washington, whose subservience to the prerogatives of business is clear, now that it has even formally de-linked trade from human rights issues. Towards Vietnam, the language of apologetics has begun to replace the former tone of righteous hostility: whenever we hear arguments about how enhanced bilateral economic relations may improve the human rights climate, we can safely expect a major shift in relations.

Narrow cost-benefit military analyses must be recast to permit a consideration of the projected environmental impact of high-tech war-fighting. Former President Kennedy was compelled to respond to health concerns about fallout from atmospheric testing, which led to the signing of the 1963 limited nuclear test-ban treaty. This came about only after considerable public protest, assisted by civilian scientists-notably chemist Linus Pauling and Bertrand Russell's Pugwash movement. This achievement saved perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives, although recent cancer estimates indicate that the victory came too late for many people stricken with cancer today because of atmospheric testing 45 years ago.

The leaked EPA report paved the way for the recent U. S. government announcement of a major U.S.-Vietnam joint study on the effects of Agent Orange. It is high time for the U.S. to match the vigor of its war effort with a postwar effort, a more benign and genuinely humanitarian intervention, with this joint research project as only a first step. The beneficiaries of this effort will not be confined to that long-suffering nation of 77 million people, nor even to U. S. veterans, many of whom are still awaiting adequate compensation, but to all humanity, as the insidious scourge of dioxin continues to be felt across national and class barriers worldwide.

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