US chemical companies concealed effects of dioxin, say advocates

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An American lawyer and a French activist say chemical companies that produced Agent Orange, a toxic defoliant used by the US Army during the Vietnam War, connived to cover up its dangers.

The following are excerpts from interviews conducted with Gerson H. Smoger, a lawyer who has represented American Agent Orange victims for years, and Marie-Helene Lavallard, a member of the French -Vietnamese Friendship Association, on how US chemical companies hid the fact that they knew how hazardous Agent Orange was.

Thanh Nien Daily: How can these companies get away with compensating Americans but not Vietnamese?

Smoger: I would not say that they "got away with compensating," because I can assure you that the responsible chemical companies had no interest in compensating anyone. Also, unfortunately, the chemical companies have never really compensated the vast majority of American veterans either. While there was a settlement entered into in 1984, the money ran out in 1994. Of the 2.4 million Americans who served in Vietnam, only about 60,000 ever received anything from the companies. Given how long it takes to get cancer from the chemicals, virtually none of the veterans who got cancer have received any compensation from the companies...

...I have reviewed literally millions of pages of documents...It seems that the manufacturers conspired to hide the dangers from the US government and the rest of the world. The chemical companies knew about the dangers and held secret meetings with the purpose of conspiring to keep the knowledge of the dangers from the US government.

Lavallard: The first thing to do is consider separately the 1984 agreement [with US Veterans] and the 2004-2008 lawsuit [filed by Vietnamese victims], not because they are separated by 20 years, though they are, but because they have almost nothing in common. The settlement of 1984 was not a judgment; on the contrary it was made to avoid a lawsuit. Why did the parties choose a private settlement?

One has to consider the background. In 1980, 1983 and 1984, three studies were published by Dr. George Roush, the medical director of Monsanto. They asserted, especially the last two, that Agent Orange had no inconvenient effects on human health. Of course, they were faked but that was discovered only years later. At the moment, they were "The Truth." So the veterans were afraid of losing everything with the lawsuit and preferred a settlement...On Monsanto's side, they were up to the nostrils in the Times Beach scandal, a small town so contaminated by TCDD that finally the US government bought it all in February 1983 and had it scratched from the surface of the earth. Monsanto was guilty and was organizing its defense. It did not need the bad publicity of a lawsuit for Agent Orange. Do not ask if it escaped the Times Beach condemnation, it did, having people destroying the necessary documents.

Not the slightest "moral" feeling in this settlement. Just a cynical and clever way to pay a small sum to avoid a bigger disgrace. The amount was ridiculous. Once the lawyers had taken their share, the compensations for some 40,000 people ranged from US$256-12 800, with an estimated mean of $4,000. Even in 1984 it was not much. For those who received their share in the last years up to 1994 it was simply alms ...the judge did not rule in favor of the American victims. It was a private settlement, such as the American law permits. It was not generous.

As for the Vietnamese victims, be sure the corporations do not care at all for them. They knew their herbicides were lethal, and they got along to hide it from the US Army at a Dow-Monsanto secret meeting in 1965. They could have produced the herbicides with much less TCDD, or even without it, but they were only interested in making as much money as possible selling as many gallons as possible as quickly as possible.

Should the US do more to help clean up Agent Orange "hot-spots" in Vietnam?

Lavallard: Easy question: The US government requested and obtained $120 million from Hercules, a chemical company who manufactured herbicides for the war and moved to another place without cleaning its former plant. Just calculate!

Whatever the "legal" aspect, the USA are responsible for poisoning huge parts of Vietnam. They made the mess, they have to clean it. I notice that this question is much easier than the question of sanitary damages. For those, there are still arguments about proofs, scientific enough or not, diseases due to sprayings or to other reasons, etc. But for the environment, the question is perfectly clear: the US wanted to destroy the forest, they succeeded. They wanted to ban the peasants away from their rice fields, they did. They wanted to destroy the crops, they did, and some contaminated areas remain unsuitable and dangerous to live in.

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