Thursday, March 4, 2010

Agent Orange: Hidden Health Warnings

By Katie Lukshis

When Agent Orange was first used as a defoliant in Vietnam, the government and chemical companies were fully aware of the health risks that were caused by exposure. The herbicide used contained a higher concentration of dioxin than the ‘normal’ version, but because it was being used on “enemies,” no one was overly concerned. However, the reality was that thousands of veterans and even more Vietnamese civilians were being directly exposed to this herbicide over a span of about six years. The Chicago Tribune recently uncovered these long-kept secrets in order to provide social justice to the veterans and civilians that needed it most.

There are records dating back as early as 1955 that show Boehringer, a German chemical company, had started contacting US based Dow Chemical Company about chloracne and liver problems showing up in a plant that made 2,4,5-T – which was the ingredient in Agent Orange contaminated with dioxin. Once Boehringer discovered its workers were getting sick, production was brought to a halt and parts of the factory were dismantled; they remained closed for three years to study the problem before resuming production of 2,4,5-T. By completing this study, Boehringer was able to determine “that dioxin was the culprit and that they could limit contamination by cooking the chemicals at lower temperatures, which would slow production,” (Grotto, Jones 2009). US chemical companies did not follow the actions of this German chemical company, and remained open despite Boehringer’s findings.

There had been more than 300 million gallons of the chemical compounds found in Agent Orange used domestically since 1947, and the formulations for Vietnam were even more concentrated and contained more dioxin. Dow Chemical Company had been sharing the information they had about health issues with the military and the potential hazards it posed to workers as early as 1949, but the military failed to share this information with the personnel responsible for overseeing the defoliation in Vietnam. It wasn’t until 1970, after a study for the National Institutes of Health showing birth defects in laboratory animals as a result of being exposed to 2,4,5-T, did the military stop using Agent Orange.

Vietnam veterans have had very little luck during their legal battles for compensation for health issues they’ve had to deal with as a result. Not only are Vietnam veterans speaking out against the chemical companies, but Vietnamese citizens are looking for compensation as well. Since the first of the lawsuits that were brought to court, chemical companies have argued they are immune from legal action under laws protecting government contractors. Companies are still trying to avoid involvement, and the question of whether health costs associated with birth defects seen in children of veterans will be covered is still being debated.

For More Information:
Grotto, Jason, and Tim Jones. "Agent Orange's lethal legacy: Defoliants more dangerous than they had to be." Chicago Tribune. 19 Dec. 2009.,0,2121785,full.story.

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