Chemical companies, US authorities knew dangers of Agent Orange

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Those responsible for exposing Vietnamese citizens and US troops to toxic defoliants kept silent about known health implications, a review of documents finds.

US chemical companies that made Agent Orange and the government and military authorities who ordered its spraying on Vietnam knew the human health toll it could take, according to official and unofficial documents detailing the history of the deadly defoliant.

A review of the documents related to the use of Agent Orange - a dioxin-laden herbicide - in Vietnam, including decades-old declassified papers from the companies that manufactured it and the government and military that used it, provides compelling evidence that those in charge also concealed evidence of the devastating effects it could have on people.

Mum's the word

A declassified letter by V.K. Rowe at Dow's Biochemical Research Library to Bioproducts Manager Ross Milholland dated June 24, 1965 clearly states that the company knew the dioxin in their products, including Agent Orange, could hurt people.

In reference to 2,4,5,-trichlorophenol and 2,3,7,8, -tetrachlorodibenzodioxin (components of Agent Orange), Rowe stated:

"This material is exceptionally toxic; it has a tremendous potential for producing chloracne and systemic injury."

Rowe worried the company would suffer if word got out.

"The whole 2,4,5-T industry would be hard hit and I would expect restrictive legislation, either barring the material or putting very rigid controls upon it."

So he said the company should keep quiet about the toxicity: "There is no reason why we cannot get this problem under strict control and thereby hopefully avoid restrictive legislation ... I trust you will be very judicious in your use of this information. It could be quite embarrassing if it were misinterpreted or misused ... P.S. Under no circumstances may this letter be reproduced, shown, or sent to anyone outside of Dow."

Dow played its cards right, never getting in serious trouble. The spraying of Agent Orange in Vietnam went on for another six years.

Dow did not return phone calls and emails requesting comment on the Agent Orange issue.


In the latest case of US veterans trying to sue Dow and Monsanto for their cancers related to Agent Orange exposure, Supreme Court Documents related to a petition for a Writ of Certiorari in Daniel Raymond Stephenson, et al., petitioners, v. Dow Chemical Company, Monsanto Company, et al., respondents, further implicates the companies in cover-ups and misinformation.

The petitioners state that the companies knew their dioxins, such as those used in Agent Orange, were harmful and lied about it while concealing information, including the fact that several factory workers had fallen sick after exposure to dioxin.

Several key facts "remain undisputed," according to the document:

"Respondents never shared the information in their sole possession about health risks attributable to dioxin," it said.

"Respondents used proprietary, defective manufacturing processes that dangerously contaminated 2,4,5- T with dioxin." That is, the chemical companies could have manufactured their products without dioxin, as other companies had done, but the process was slower and more expensive, so they chose a more dangerous method.

The companies "secretly tested their products for dioxin and hid its extreme toxicity from the military," according to the petitioners.

The petitioners stated that the companies had been hiding information during the ongoing court process: "Respondents also misrepresent today's medical understanding of the injuries caused by exposure to dioxin. Instead of telling this Court that the NAS/IOM has found that numerous cancers have been related to exposure to dioxin-contaminated 2,4,5-T (ingredient in Agent Orange) they quote a twenty-year-old Second Circuit opinion to say: 'Even today, . . . no . . . evidence that Agent Orange was hazardous to human health.'"

The petitioners said the companies had misrepresented the health effects with "patently false" assertions that none of their workers had gotten sick from dioxin poisoning.

Inside job

Though numerous studies have uncontroversially demonstrated the devastating effects of dioxin exposure on humans, the companies that manufactured Agent Orange have gone out of their way to offer their own unique perspective.

Through 2004, Dow and Monsanto funded several friendly studies by Dr. Alvin L. Young to show that the exposure of US ground forces to Agent Orange should be of minimal health concern.

Young's schizophrenic reports go back and forth from saying that dioxins are not harmful to saying they are harmful and his largely debunked studies have drawn the scorn of prominent members of the scientific community.

"Young is paid by the chemical companies," Dr. Wayne Dwernychuk, a retired senior/advisor at Hatfield Consultants, told Thanh Nien Daily. "I don't believe a word he says." Hatfield Consultants is a research leader in the field of contamination from dioxin herbicides in Vietnam.

Not overly concerned

Though reports point to the fact that chemical companies like Dow and Monsanto knowingly hid evidence of dioxin-related medical problems from the government, the declassified 1990 Zumwalt Report suggests that US military experts knew that Agent Orange was harmful at the time of its use.

The report quotes a 1988 letter from Dr. James R. Clary, a former government scientist with the Chemical Weapons Branch, to Senator Tom Daschle. Dr. Clary was involved in designing tanks that sprayed herbicides and defoliants in Vietnam, according to the report.

Clary told 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. We never considered a scenario in which our own personnel would become contaminated with the herbicide. And, if we had, we would have expected our own government to give assistance to veterans so contaminated."

Chemical warfare: calling a spade a spade

Supporters of the US's Agent Orange Campaign prefer to call it an "herbicide program" rather than chemical warfare. But official documents reveal that the US Senate knew its real name.

In US Senate Congressional Records dated August 11, 1969, a table presented to senators showed that congress clearly classified 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T (main components of Agent Orange) in the Chemical and Biological Warfare category.

The table also includes Cacodylic Acid, a main component of Agent Blue, another chemical sprayed on Vietnam to kill plants, in the official Chemical and Biological Warfare category. The table describes it as "an arsenic-base compound... heavy concentrations will cause arsenical poisoning in humans. Widely used in Vietnam. It is composed of 54.29 percent arsenic."

As Vietnam War Scholar and US Veteran W.D. Ehrhart put it concisely in a Thanh Nien Daily interview last week: "It would be hard to describe Agent Orange as anything other than a chemical weapon. Dioxin is a chemical." So is arsenic.

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