Agent Orange

Monsanto's Agent Orange:
The Persistent Ghost from the Vietnam War

By Meryl Nass, MD

The Issue That Wont Go Away

       "TCDD (dioxin) has been shown to be extremely toxic to a number of animal species. Mortality does not occur immediately. It appears that the animals' environment suddenly becomes toxic to them."


Casarett and Doull's Toxicology, 1996


       From 1962 to 1970, the US military sprayed 72 million liters of herbicides, mostly Agent Orange, in Vietnam. Over one million Vietnamese were exposed to the spraying, as well as over 100,000 Americans and allied troops. Dr. James Clary, a scientist at the Chemical Weapons Branch, Eglin Air Force Base, who designed the herbicide spray tank and wrote a 1979 report on Operation Ranch Hand (the name of the spraying program), told Senator Daschle in 1988.


       "When we (military scientists) initiated the herbicide program in the 1960s, 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."


Quoted by Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, 1990

What Did We Know About Dioxin,
and When Did We Know It?

       The first reported industrial dioxin poisoning occurred in Nitro, West Virginia in 1949. The exposed workers complained of rash, nausea, headaches, muscle aches, fatigue and emotional instability. A 1953 accident elsewhere resulted in peripheral neuropathies.


       A 1969 report commissioned by the USDA found Agent Orange showed a "significant potential to increase birth defects." The same year, the NIH confirmed that it caused malformations and stillbirths in mice. In 1970, the US Surgeon General warned it might be hazardous to "our health." The same day, the Secretaries of the Departments of Agriculture, the Interior, and HEW jointly announced the suspension of its use around lakes, recreation areas, homes and crops intended for human consumption. DOD simultaneously announced its suspension of all uses of Agent Orange.


       When dioxin contaminated material spread on a Missouri farm in 1971, hundreds of birds, 11 cats, 4 dogs and 43 horses died.


       In 1978 the EPA suspended spraying Agent Orange in national forests, due to increases in miscarriages in women living near forests that had been sprayed.


       A 1979 study published in the JAMA by Bogen et al looked at 78 Vietnam veterans who reported Agent Orange exposures. Eighty percent reported extreme fatigue. Over 60% had peripheral neuropathies, 73% had depression, and 8% had attempted suicide. Forty-five per cent reported violent rages. Sudden lapses of memory were seen in 21%.


       A 1981 study by Pazderova et al. found one half of 80 exposed workers had metabolic disturbances, 23% peripheral neuropathies, and the majority, psychiatric changes, primarily depression and fatigue.


       In 1979, 47 railroad workers were exposed to PCBs including dioxin in Missouri when cleaning up a spillage from a damaged tank car that had been filled with these chemicals. All were followed medically for six years. Their initial complaints included fatigue and muscle aches. Two committed suicide. Careful evaluations at Rush-Presbyterian Hospital, in Chicago, confirmed peripheral neuropathies (in 96%), depression (69%), tremors (78%), abnormal fatigue (91%), and muscle aches or cramp (51%). Half had cognitive problems, including problems with attention and concentration (50%) and slowed reaction times.


       These studies are all consistent with each other, and describe a very significant, multi-system illness affecting all parts of the nervous system, and causing fatigue and muscle aches. Some of the studies documented additional organ dysfunction. This syndrome could be very disabling.

What Did It Take to Forget What We Knew?

       By 1983, 9170 veterans had filed claims for disabilities that they said were caused by Agent Orange. The VA denied compensation to 7709, saying that a facial rash was the only disease associated with exposure.


       Congress passed the Veterans' Dioxin and Radiation Exposure Compensation Standards Act of 1984 in response. It required the VA to appoint a 'Veterans' Advisory Committee on Environmental Hazards' to review the literature on dioxin and submit recommendations to the head of the VA.


       According to Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, "The VA.directly contradicted its own established practice, promulgating instead the more stringent requirement that compensation depends on establishing a cause and effect relationship," improperly denying the bulk of the claims.


       Four groups of impartial scientists were asked by Zumwalt to review the Advisory Committee transcripts. Their comments are telling, and include the following:


"The work of the Advisory Committee has little or no scientific merit."


" inadequate process is being used to evaluate scientific publications for use in public policy."


"...less than objective."


       Unfortunately, the flawed scientific reviews didn't end with the VA committee. The CDC was brought in to add weight to the bogus analysis of dioxin's effects. After 4 years and $63 million in federal funds, CDC concluded that an Agent Orange study could not be done based on military records, and furthermore concluded, without data, that veterans were never exposed to harmful doses of Agent Orange!


       When the CDC's protocols were examined, however, it was found that three changes had been made to its study in 1985, in an apparent attempt to dilute any negative effect that might be found. Congress learned in 1986 that administration officials, not scientists, had forestalled CDC research on the effects of dioxin.


       In 1990, Senator Daschle disclosed additional political interference in the Air Force's Ranch Hand study of Agent Orange effects. A 1984 draft report's conclusion was substantially altered, and the study was described as "reassuring."


       The Ranch Hand study is still ongoing, despite new allegations of fraudulent methodologies coming to light every few years. It will cost taxpayers over $100 million.


       Monsanto, a manufacturer of Agent Orange, was happy to duplicate the methods of federally funded studies. By omitting five deaths in the exposed group and putting four exposed workers in the control group, they were able to hide a 65% higher death rate in the workers exposed at the Nitro plant. Another study of workers exposed in 1953 at a BASF plant was also shown to be falsified, as all the data had been supplied by the BASF company.


       Thanks to the efforts of Admiral Zumwalt, who as the commanding Navy Admiral in Vietnam was responsible for some of the spraying, and whose son died from lymphoma, probably as a result of dioxin exposure, many more illnesses were finally linked to Agent Orange, and have been made service-connectable over the past decade.


       But Zumwalt did not succeed at clearing the air regarding dioxin's actual toxicity, nor did he stop further scientific shenanigans carried out by government and industry to hide the toxic effects of other products, especially those to which our servicemen and women are exposed.


       In April 2000, the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences tried to release a report listing dioxin as a carcinogen, but it was blocked by a lawsuit filed by an industry group. NIEHS had tried to list dioxin as a carcinogen in 1991, but was not allowed to do so then. John Bucher, deputy director of the NIEHS, says, "Dioxin tends to increase the likelihood of all types of cancers" while industry representatives continue to claim there is insufficient evidence to link dioxin to health problems.


       Ellen Silbergeld, a University of Maryland toxicologist, responded, "I think the public should be mad as hell about the [dioxin review] process and the way it's been abused."

Agent Orange: 2002

       US and Vietnamese government scientists and international experts met last week in Hanoi to discuss the effects of the "last significant ghost" of the Vietnam War: Agent Orange.


       Vietnam wants US help performing research and obtaining compensation. It blames Agent Orange for tens of thousands of birth defects. The US and Vietnam did sign an agreement during the meeting to carry out joint research studies. But US ambassador Raymond Burghardt noted that developing research studies "that are definitive and address the underlying causes of disease in Vietnam" will be a "difficult task."


       Reporting on the conference, Reuters pointed out, "Observers say conclusive research could have far-reaching and expensive consequences in terms of compensation claims for the US and Agent Orange makers, Dow Chemical and Monsanto."


       However, the US seems to think it has an ace in the hole. The US embassy made clear, at the time of the conference, that "US-Vietnam relations were normalized in 1995 after Vietnam dropped claims of war reparations/compensation. At the time of normalization, neither compensation nor reparations were granted or contemplated for the future."


       And, anyway, the US government has a fallback position. "Washington argues there is no hard evidence showing the defoliant caused specific illness," Reuters reported last week. And US government scientists chimed in that any linkages to birth defects "would take many more years to prove."


       The well-documented story of dioxin and scientific perfidy provide a guidepost for how to assess government-sponsored research, advisory committees, and regulatory decisions that impact on the health effects of toxic exposures, especially when the government may be liable for damages.


"Those Who Cannot Remember the Past Are Condemned to Repeat It"


--George Santayana

Recommended Reading

Zumwalt ER. Report to the Secretary of the Department of Veterans' Affairs on the association between adverse health effects and exposure to Agent Orange. DVA Report, 1990.


Echobichon DJ. Toxic Effects of Pesticides, in Casarett and Doull's Toxicology. Klaassen CD ed, McGraw-Hill, NY. 1996.


Klawans HL et al. Neurologic problems following exposure to TCDD, dioxin. In Neurotoxins and their pharmacological implications, ed. Jenner P, 1987. Raven Press, NY.


Welch, Craig. Dioxin debate growing hotter. Seattle Times May 29, 2000


Agent Orange help needed now, Vietnam Red Cross says. Reuters, March 5, 2002.


Brunnstrom, David. Hanoi meeting probes "last ghost" of Vietnam War. Reuters, March 3, 2002.

Reprinted with permission

Air Force Admits Agent Orange Spraying In Florida In 1962-70
by Barbara T. Dreyfuss

       In the 1960s, Ernie Rivers taught Navy flight students at the Pensacola Naval Air Station how to live off the land if their plane was downed. He was the officer in charge of the survival unit, overseeing 30 to 35 instructors, who taught more than 100 men a week how to survive with only a compass, map, and a hunting knife. Every week groups of students would camp for three days, using different sites on Eglin Air Force Base Reservation in Florida.


       When the winds and clouds were right, Rivers and his men would watch planes pass overhead, clouds of spray coming from them. Several times he and his men were sprayed. “I’d say, ‘At least we don’t have to use bug repellant,’” he noted, laughing, during an interview. That was a big plus, they thought, for them as well as Army Rangers who were also training out in the bayous of the Florida panhandle, where mosquitoes and other bugs could make life miserable.


       Rivers and the students thought they were watching the Air Force spray DDT to kill mosquitoes. What was actually being sprayed, he said, was Agent Orange. Documents show that gallons of the defoliants Agent Orange, Agent Purple, and Agent White were sprayed at Eglin. In fact, according to officials overseeing the program, the Air Force sprayed a test area on the base with more dioxin than any similar area in Vietnam. The fact that Agent Orange was sprayed in Florida for eight years was not widely known then or even today. Only in the last several years has the documentation on the spraying been made publicly available by Alvin Young, an Air Force scientist for more than 15 years at Eglin. Young oversaw a huge research project evaluating how massive spraying of Agent Orange at the Florida air force base affected its soil, water, plants, fish, and animals.


       In Vietnam during the war, a typical mission disseminated 14.8 kg of Agent Orange per hectare, according to Young. Most of the Agent Orange in Vietnam was intercepted by forest canopy, and some of it was destroyed by the sunlight. But at Eglin, where the spray rate was 876 kg per hectare, the trees and bushes already had been removed from the spray area. Young recently wrote that each hectare at Eglin received at least 1,300 times more dioxin than a hectare sprayed in Vietnam. The spraying went on from 1962 to 1970. The test area was three kilometers square.


       Eglin was one of several key military installations involved with Operation Ranch Hand and posters plastering its buildings made that clear. Pictures of Smokey the Bear, the unofficial Operation Ranch Hand mascot, proclaimed, “Only you can prevent a forest.” Eglin had responsibility for training the aircrews, fitting aircraft with spray equipment, and testing the spray systems and spray patterns.


       Spray systems were tested in an area divided into four grids. From June 1962 through June 1970 fixed-wing airplanes, helicopters or jet aircraft sprayed massive amounts of defoliants on the area. During that time 75,000 liters of Agent Orange, 61,200 liters of Agent Purple, 15,800 liters of Agent White, and 16,600 liters of Agent Blue rained onto the base.


       There were 155,000 kg sprayed of the active ingredients in the herbicides. The Air Force estimated that the amount of dioxin sprayed was between 5.6 and eight pounds, an enormous amount since it is one of the more toxic chemicals, even in minute amounts. Because of its toxicity, dioxin is generally measured in parts per trillion.


       In the late 1960s, Air Force officials became concerned about the ramifications of spraying dioxin in massive amounts stateside. “After repetitive applications, personnel involved with the test program expressed concern about potential ecological and environmental hazards that might be associated with continuance of these test programs,” Young wrote later in an Air Force technical report.


       Officials overseeing the test program knew how toxic Agent Orange was but seemed unconcerned, so long as it was used in Vietnam. James Clary, who worked at Eglin and helped design the spray system for herbicides, wrote in a 1988 letter to then-Sen. Tom Daschle: “When we [military scientists] initiated the herbicide program in the 1960s, 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.”


       But when it started to be sprayed in enormous quantities on an American base, some Air Force officials became concerned and wanted to study the impact of the spraying. Their concern doesn’t seem to have been motivated only by worry about ecological and public health issues.


       In fact, it seems to have been in part triggered by worry that the government could be liable for damages caused by the spraying. Internal Air Force memos show that the government was being sued by farmers who believed their crops had been decimated by the spraying. The military was interested in disproving the farmers’ claims, by studying if Agent Orange traveled in the air when sprayed and how it affected area plants and animals.


       A memo from an Air Force chemical engineer in June 1968 explained that personnel were investigating a neutron activation tracer to see if it could determine whether defoliants traveled when sprayed and, if so, where they went. “The Air Force is vitally concerned with potential hazards to local flora, fauna, and marine life, both on and off the Eglin Reservation that might be created by defoliant testing,” he wrote. “This concern is primarily the result of pending legal action against the government by cotton farmers of a surrounding county claiming damage to their cotton fields due to previous defoliant testing at Eglin.”


       To study the ramifications of the spraying, the Air Force in 1968 created a research unit at Eglin of more than a dozen Air University graduates with doctorates in such areas as chemistry, microbiology, plant science, and zoology. They worked for at least four years, and six of the scientists, including Alvin Young who became lead investigator, stayed at Eglin for the entire 15 years of the study.


       In what would be considered a conflict of interest today, they were assisted by contractors from Dow Chemical Company, one of the manufacturers of the herbicides. Dow, which was ultimately sued over Agent Orange, had a significant stake in whether or not the chemicals were found to cause serious harm to plants, animals, or people. A U.S. Air Force Academy research director asked that scientists be brought from Dow, claiming they were the “best qualified to recognize and access the ecological effects caused by these materials.”


       The first study of the impact of Agent Orange at Eglin began in late summer of 1969, when six five-foot cores of dirt were randomly taken from the test area. They indicated “significant concentrations of herbicides” and scientists found toxins leaching up to three feet into the soil,” Young wrote. In 1974, “relatively high” levels of dioxin, 1,500 parts per trillion, were found in the test area.


       An ecological survey, conducted from 1973 to 1978, found dioxin in nine animal species on the reservation, including mice, rats, three types of birds, and three types of fish. Spiders, crickets, and grubs also tested positive. In the fifteen years of study at Eglin, dioxin was found in about one-third of the different species studied. The levels of the toxin were about the same as that found at the time in the soil.


       In 1984, fourteen years after Agent Orange was last sprayed at Eglin, Young’s team concluded that about one percent of the dioxin remained on the test area. While some of it was destroyed by sunlight, Young acknowledged that “wind and water erosion” also led to its disappearance from the site, but he did not study where it might have traveled to in the surrounding area.


       The spray area was not the only place at Eglin affected by the herbicides. There were storage, disposal, and loading sites as well, and the Air Force concluded in 1992 there were nine locations associated with Agent Orange at the base, in addition to the spray areas. These included the Mullet Creek Drum Disposal Site, the Hardstand 7 disposal area, Receiver Landfill, Upper Memorial Lake, three sites at Lower Memorial Lake and Field No. 2 Drum Disposal, and Field No. 2 Helicopter Loading Area.


       Mullet Creek Drum Disposal Site had more than 660 drums in it when the Air Force removed them in 1988. And 120 cubic yards of debris also were taken out. Another disposal site, Upper Memorial Lake Landfill, which is about half a mile from the Eglin Main Base residential area next to Upper Memorial Lake, and a quarter mile south of the runways, had an estimated 150 drums used for herbicides buried there.


       On the west side of the north-south runway was another disposal site, Hardstand 7, which also was a 40-meter circular concrete and asphalt aircraft parking and loading area. It included a 15-foot-deep pit near the center of the concrete pad where herbicide drums were stored and transferred to aircraft. In 1980, dioxin-contaminated soil was removed from Hardstand 7 and temporarily stored at the Receiver Area Landfill, and then was spread over the spray area. At least as late as 1992, the Air Force found contamination at the Upper Memorial Lake Landfill and at the Hardstand 7 site.


       An additional 260 feet of contaminated soil also was stored, briefly, at Hardfill 01. And there was an alternate Agent Orange loading area at Hardstand 8. In addition, helicopters were loaded with herbicides at Field No. 2.


       Eglin Air Force Base is huge and largely undeveloped, and the test and storage areas are in a rural area in the southeast section of the reservation, but they don’t exist in a vacuum. Creeks flow through the area, ponds are nearby, residential areas abut some of the sites. The area is about three miles north of Choctawhatchee Bay and eight miles east of Niceville, Florida.


       Eglin Main Base employs about 15,000 workers today and the airfield an additional 6,000. Much of the base is open to the general public for recreation. Ponds near the disposal and spray areas drain into creeks that flow into nearby bayous. Mullet, Trout, and Basin Creek receive runoff surface water from the test area and disposal sites and drain into Choctawhatchee Bay.


       For many years, the Air Force did little to contain wind and water erosion of the contaminated sites. A 1981 memo advised Eglin’s commanding general that he only had to follow “minimal recommendations” to prevent erosion, even in the southern half of the spray areas, which was particularly susceptible to erosion. He was advised mainly to limit off-road vehicles.


       “I feel that when these minimal recommendations are placed into effect, the Air Force will have made a significant and prudent move toward preventing the unwanted future movement of TCCD-contaminated soil, particularly the movement toward Choctawhatchee Bay,” Major General John Ord, then commander of the Air Force Systems Command’s Aerospace Medical Division at Brooks Air Force Base, wrote.


       But in fact, dioxin traveled into ponds and streams, was carried by the wind, was absorbed by fish, and found its way into areas used for recreational fishing and swimming. In 1978, Young’s group studied dioxin levels at Hardstand 7 and found concentrations as high as 275 parts per billion and contamination up to a third of that down into the dirt one meter deep. They found it had migrated as far downstream as Tom’s Pond, concluding that much of the contamination occurred before a dike was built. Still, it took until 1985 for the site to be closed off with a chain-link fence and locked gates, and signs posted to prevent trespassing and fishing.


       And it took four more years after the Air Force’s 1992 assessment that there was still contamination at the site for efforts at embankment stabilization, drum excavation, and drain pit excavation. In 2001, the Air Force installed three erosion control structures to reduce erosion around the hardstand and to minimize storm water run-off into Hardstand Pond. In addition, an asphalt cap was installed over contaminated areas of Handstand 7, and the existing storm water pipe was checked for blockage.


       Similarly, at Upper Memorial Lake Landfill, soil samples taken in 1992 indicated trace levels of dioxin. The next year Eglin officials collected eight soil samples at the lake itself and found evidence of dioxin in it, as well as in fish caught there. But it was not until 1998 that erosion control and other actions were taken.


       Because water from the spray areas and drum disposal site flows into Mullet, Trout, and Basin Creeks, which flow into Choctawhatchee Bay, the Air Force tested for dioxins, furans, and other contaminants in the creeks in the 1990s and found them in the surface water, sediment, and fish.


       By 1998 enough concern had been raised about the health impact of the Agent Orange spraying and disposal sites that the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry agreed to do a public-health assessment of Eglin Air Force Base. They concluded, in a report released in 2003, that although there were contaminated land and water areas in the Eglin spray areas, the amount of contamination was very low and the use of the areas by the public was so low, there was little danger posed to the public.


       But, what the study didn’t assess was the health risk to the Air Force personnel who flew the planes or loaded the drums onto them, or stored them at the disposal site, or later removed them. And it didn’t look at whether any of Ernie Rivers’ flight students or the Army Rangers, who were living off the land, drinking its rivers, and sleeping on earth dampened by Agent Orange were put at risk.

Reprinted with permission from the VVA

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