By Plutonium Page
Between 1961 and 1971, over 20 million gallons of herbicide were sprayed over Vietnam, in an attempt to deprive the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops of food and cover. These herbicide mixtures included Agent Orange and similar mixtures; all were contaminated with a very toxic dioxin called TCDD. A landmark study (pdf), published in 2003, showed that the total amount of dioxin sprayed in Vietnam was up to four times what was previously thought.
TCDD is a persistent environmental toxin; it bioaccumulates, and it is extremely teratogenic (causes birth defects). In short, spraying Agent Orange in Vietnam resulted in an environmental disaster which is still affecting people over three decades later.
For that reason, in September 2004, a group of Vietnamese citizens filed a class action suit (pdf) against the companies that manufactured the herbicide mixtures, including Dow and Monsanto, plus at least 15 other chemical companies. Hearings began this week in New York.
Look below the fold for background on Agent Orange, TCDD, and more about the lawsuit and its ramifications.
Agent Orange and other herbicides used in Vietnam
Operation Ranch Hand was the military name for the herbicide spraying missions in Vietnam. By 1971, about 20% of Vietnam's jungles, and 36% of its mangrove forests had been sprayed. Click here to see a movie of herbicide spraying locations between 1963 and 1970 (2.9 MB Quicktime movie), or click here for a still map.
Fifteen different herbicide mixtures were used; most were simply different ratios of two chemicals called 2,4,-D and 2,4,5,-T. Agent Orange was a 1:1 mixture of these two, and proved to be a very effective defoliant, hence the Operation Ranch Hand motto: "Only You Can Prevent Forests" (mentioned here). It was named for the orange stripes on the barrels in which it was transported.
Toxic legacy: TCDD contamination of Agent Orange
...we had a serious situation in our operating plants because of contamination of 2,4,5,-trichlorophenol [2,4,5-T] with impurities, the most active of which is 2,3,7,8,-tetrachlorodibenzodioxin [TCDD]. This material is exceptionally toxic; it has a tremendous potential for producing chloracne and systemic injury.
In plain English: Dow privately admitted that there was highly toxic (TCDD) contamination of the ingredients of Agent Orange.
Effects of TCDD exposure
Despite Dow's repeated claims that there is no connection between Vietnam veterans' (and Vietnamese civilians') chronic illnesses and Agent Orange/TCDD exposure, there is mounting evidence to the contrary:
• Agent Orange exposure has been linked to chronic lymphocytic leukaemia
• Operation Ranch Hand veterans have an increased risk of developing type II diabetes
• Children of parents who were exposed to Agent Orange often have severe birth defects (warning: graphic photos)
There are many, many more examples. The point is that TCDD stays in the environment for decades, as well as affecting second and third generation Vietnamese children (birth defects). It is also bioaccumulated, i.e.since TCDD is lipophilic (fat-soluble), it ends up in food, which is one of the main sources of exposure for Vietnamese citizens.
Vietnamese file a class action lawsuit against manufacturers of Agent Orange
The plaintiffs will finally have their day in court... and the defendants' responses are predictable.
From the Boston Globe article:
It is the first Agent Orange suit filed by Vietnamese. Hearings will begin tomorrow in the US District Court's Second Circuit in Brooklyn.
The chemical companies have moved to dismiss the case, saying US law bars suits against corporations for work they carry out under government contracts. The Vietnamese plaintiffs argue this immunity does not protect companies when their products are dangerously defective, as Agent Orange was.
''The companies knew that their sloppy manufacturing processes caused Agent Orange to contain high levels of dioxin," said Jonathan Moore, one of the plaintiffs' American lawyers. ''They ignored it, because they figured the only people getting sprayed were 'the enemy.' "
The plaintiffs also argue that spraying Agent Orange was a war crime, since international law prohibits the use of chemical weapons. The defendants say this claim is baseless.
''Agent Orange was a defoliant, used to protect US and South Vietnamese troops," said Scott Wheeler, a spokesman for Dow Chemical. ''In no way was it ever used as a weapon."
The companies say that, contrary to the plaintiffs' claims, dioxin in the trace amounts in which it was present in Agent Orange has never been shown to cause disease in humans. Moreover, because the US government was well aware of the herbicides' dioxin levels, the manufacturers say, the government-contractor defense protects them. They say any settlement with Vietnamese victims should result from negotiation between the US and Vietnamese governments, not from litigation against the manufacturers.
Last month, the US government filed a statement supporting the chemical companies. It argued that the court has no authority to judge ''the validity of the president's decisions regarding combat tactics and weaponry," including Agent Orange.
Whether or not Agent Orange can be considered a weapon, the fact remains that irreversible damage was done to the environment and the people of Vietnam. It's also interesting that the U.S. government supports the chemical companies, with the cover-your-ass reasoning regarding a president's decision about use of weapons. The latest update on the case elaborates on this point:
The Justice Department is urging a federal judge in Brooklyn to dismiss a lawsuit aimed at forcing a re-examination of one of the most contentious issues of the Vietnam War, the use of the defoliant Agent Orange.
The civil suit, filed last year on behalf of millions of Vietnamese, claimed that American chemical companies committed war crimes by supplying the military with Agent Orange, which contained dioxin, a highly toxic substance.
The suit seeks what could be billions of dollars of damages from the companies and the environmental cleanup of Vietnam.
In preparation for legal arguments scheduled for today in United States District Court in Brooklyn, Justice Department lawyers filed a brief last month that described the suit as a dangerous threat to the president's power to wage war and an effort at a "breathtaking expansion" of the powers of federal courts.
Though the case drew little attention when it was first filed, it has become an important test of the reach of American courts, drawing worldwide interest and setting off a fierce debate among international-law experts.
"The implications of plaintiffs' claims are astounding," the government's filing said, "as they would (if accepted) open the courthouse doors of the American legal system for former enemy nationals and soldiers claiming to have been harmed by the United States Armed Forces" during war.
In other words, this is essentially the same argument the Bush administration has used against recognizing the International Criminal Court.
So, what started out as a lawsuit seeking justice for Vietnamese who were exposed to Agent Orange, has turned into a battle over corporate versus government accountability.