Agent Orange's lethal legacy: Defoliants more dangerous than they had to be
Papers show firms didn't act on data to reduce toxicity
Before-and-after air views show the effects herbicides had when sprayed in Vietnam during the war. Above is an unsprayed mangrove forest, date unknown, and the bottom image is of the same area in 1970. It was sprayed in 1965. (AP photos)
As the U.S. military aggressively ratcheted up its spraying of Agent Orange over South Vietnam in 1965, the government and the chemical companies that produced the defoliant knew it posed health risks to soldiers and others who were exposed.
That year, a Dow Chemical Company memo called a contaminant in Agent Orange "one of the most toxic materials known causing not only skin lesions, but also liver damage."
Yet despite the mounting evidence of the chemical's health threat, the risks of exposure were downplayed, a Tribune review of court documents and records from the National Archives has found. The spraying campaign would continue for six more years.
Records also show that much of the controversy surrounding the herbicides might have been avoided if manufacturers had used available techniques to lessen dioxin contamination and if the military had kept better tabs on levels of the toxin in the compounds. Dow Chemical knew as early as 1957 about a technique that could eliminate dioxin from the defoliants by slowing the manufacturing process, according to documents unearthed by veterans' attorneys.
Since the Vietnam War, dioxin has been found to be a carcinogen associated with Parkinson's disease, birth defects and dozens of other health issues. Thousands of veterans as well as Vietnamese civilians were directly exposed to the herbicides used by the military.
Debilitating illnesses linked to defoliants used in South Vietnam now cost the federal government billions of dollars annually and have contributed to a dramatic increase in disability payments to veterans since 2003.
Documents show that before the herbicide program was launched in 1961, the Department of Defense had cut funding and personnel to develop defoliants for nonlethal purposes. Instead it relied heavily on the technical guidance of chemical companies, which were under pressure to increase production to meet the military's needs.
The use of defoliants led to massive class-action lawsuits brought by veterans and Vietnamese citizens against the chemical firms. The companies settled with U.S. veterans in the first of those suits in 1984 for $180 million.
Since then, the chemical companies have successfully argued they are immune from legal action under laws protecting government contractors. The courts also found that the military was aware of the dioxin contamination but used the defoliants anyway because the chemicals helped protect U.S. soldiers.
A 1990 report for the secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs found that the military knew that Agent Orange was harmful to personnel but took few precautions to limit exposure. The report quotes a 1988 letter from James Clary, a former scientist with the Chemical Weapons Branch of the Air Force Armament Development Laboratory, to then- Sen. Tom Daschle, who was pushing legislation to aid veterans with herbicide-related illnesses.
"When we initiated the herbicide program in 1960s, we were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicides," Clary wrote. "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."
Military scientists had been experimenting with herbicides since the 1940s, but funding cuts in 1958 left few resources in place to fully evaluate the chemicals for use in Vietnam.
"I was given approximately 10 days notice to come to Vietnam to undertake 'research' in connection with the above tasks," wrote Col. James Brown of the U.S. Chemical Corps Research and Development Command in an October 1961 report to top brass just as the defoliation program was ramping up. "Thus, a large order was placed on a very poorly supported research effort."
The military launched a limited herbicide program in 1962 that involved 47 missions. At the time, relatively little was known about the health effects of dioxin, in part because cancer and other illnesses can take decades to develop and the herbicides had only been in wide use since 1947.
But documents uncovered by veterans' attorneys show the chemical companies knew that ingredients in Agent Orange and other defoliants could be harmful.
As early as 1955, records show, the German chemical company Boehringer had begun contacting Dow about chloracne and liver problems at a Boehringer plant that made 2,4,5-T, the ingredient in Agent Orange and other defoliants that was contaminated with dioxin.
Unlike U.S. chemical companies, Boehringer halted production and dismantled parts of its factory after it discovered workers were getting sick. The company studied the problem for nearly three years before resuming production of 2,4,5-T.
In doing so, the company found that dioxin was the culprit and that they could limit contamination by cooking the chemicals at lower temperatures, which would slow production.