Reprinted from The Ecologist, Vol 28, No 5, Sept/Oct 1998

Agent Orange: The Poisoning of Vietnam

by Hugh Warwick
Monsanto was heavily involved in, and was the major financial
beneficiary of one of the most shocking scandals of our age.

Monsanto was one of the principal companies involved in supplying the 19 million gallons of herbicide used on Vietnam between 1962 and 1971. Under the military project code-named Operation Ranch Hand, the US Air Force sprayed some 6 million acres of South Vietnam's forest, while some was used specifically to kill crops. Non-crop use was designed to cut wide swathes through the jungle, denying ground cover to the opposition army, especially along main transport routes, making ambush more difficult.

The most widely deployed defoliant was Agent Orange, of which at least I I million gallons was used. Agent Orange is a 50:50 mix of two phenoxy herbicides: 2,4-D (2,4-dichlorophenoxy acetic acid) and 2,4,5-T (2,4,5-trichlorophenoxy acetic acid). These components were common agricultural chemicals, widely used in the United States. Its name comes from the coloured coding on the drums used by the military (there was a whole range of different chemicals used as defoliants including Agent's White, Blue and Pink). Unfortunately in the rush to meet the military's demand for Agent Orange, a contaminant became concentrated in the manufacture process.

TCDD (2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin) is an unavoidable, and unwanted, by-product of the manufacture of 2,4,5-T. However, in domestic preparations, it is present in much lower concentrations, 0.05 ppm (parts per million) as opposed to peaks of 50 ppm in stock shipped to Vietnam. Therefore dioxin contamination of Agent Orange was up to 1,000 times higher than in domestic herbicides. TCDD is believed to be the most toxic of the dioxins, a family of chemicals that has been described as, "the most toxic substances known to humans".(1,2)

So the legacy of the use of Agent Orange is more profound than just the damage to the ecosystem. And it is one that has had consequences far beyond the forests of South-East Asia. Indeed, it has followed the American personnel home. Despite much conjecture from chemical companies, an independent scientific review has concluded that there is a significant link between exposure to Agent Orange and serious illness including various cancers, serious skin disorders (chloracne) and liver disorders.(3)

But while these cases have received great attention, it should be remembered that rarely did Americans serve in Vietnam for more than a year. For those whose homes were repeatedly dosed with poison, there was no escape. And some estimates now put the figure of children born in Vietnam with dioxin related deformities since the l960s as up to 500,000.

Perhaps the most gruesome legacy of the contaminated herbicide, though, is to be found in a locked room in Tu Du Obstetrical and Gynaecological Hospital in Saigon. Here the walls are lined with shelves filled with jars of formalin, containing aborted and full-term foetuses. They are just a sample of the horror that emerged from Vietnam and the hospital has for a long time now been unable to afford the bottles and formalin to preserve more specimens. They feature double and triple conjoined bodies, faces covered in cancerous growths and other terrible deformities.(4)

So it would seem that when the veterans of the war in Vietnam started to succumb to a wide range of illness, the companies responsible for the contamination would offer compensation. However, companies such as Monsanto and Dow Chemicals were involved in a lengthy campaign of belittling scientific evidence proving the toxicity of dioxins. A class action suit was brought against seven companies involved (Monsanto, Dow Chemicals, Uniroyal, Hercules, Diamond Shamrock, Thompson Chemical and TH Agriculture). This was settled out of court in May 1984 for victims and families exposed to herbicides for $180 million, but the companies continued to deny Agent Orange was responsible for the health complaints.(5)

The foundation for the chemical industry's defence comes from the fact that there are differences in the way that species react and that there are obvious obstacles preventing experimentation on humans. Of the few studies on exposure of dioxins to humans, some failed to show any increased risk of cancer. Principal amongst these were two Monsanto-sponsored studies of Monsanto workers accidentally exposed to dioxin.(6)

That is why the veterans had to settle for little more than 'nuisance value' compensation. By the time further evidence emerged of the carcinogenicity of dioxins, it was too late for the veterans as the courts had closed their doors on further settlements.(7)

However, Dr Cate Jenkins, a chemist with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), wrote in 1990 that there was evidence that the Monsanto studies had been undertaken fraudulently. She called for a scientific investigation but was ignored and the EPA embarked upon a criminal investigation of Monsanto. The chemical giant lobbied hard: the investigation lasted over two years, and ended up being 'spun' onto the whistleblower, Dr Jenkins. While the criminal investigation was quietly dropped, the campaign of harassment against Dr Jenkins was only stopped by the Secretary of Labor.

It seems that despite the best efforts of Monsanto, the reality of the risks associated with dioxin are emerging. Thus recent EPA reports state that there is convincing human evidence of dioxin's carcinogenicity. The World Health Organization has recently slashed its recommended safe limit for dioxin intake by 60-90 per cent. This will mean that many consumers will already have intakes well in excess of the new limits. A panel of experts noted that "Subtle effects might already be occurring in the general population at current background levels ... every effort should be made to reduce exposure to the lower end of this range."(8) The question is whether Monsanto deliberately manipulated its studies to reduce its liability to Vietnam veterans?(9)

A great many lives were ruined by the senseless conflict in Vietnam. That a multinational company, now trying to sell itself as the saviour of a starving world, should have profited out of this enduring misery is a sad indictment of the state we are in. That Monsanto still continues to shirk its responsibility to the veterans of the conflict, both American and Vietnamese is disgraceful.

Hugh Warwick is a freelance journalist and editor of Splice, the magazine of the Genetics Forum.


1. Roberts, L., "Dioxin Risks Revisited", Science, 8 February, 1991, pp. 624-6.
2. Beder, S., Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism, Green Books, 1997.
3. Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly, No. 212, December 19, 1990.
4. Curry, C. B., "Residual Dioxin in Vietnam", Vietnam Generation Journal, Nov. 1992, Vol. 4, Nos.3-4.
5. Op.cit.2.
6. Sanjour, W., 1996. "The Monsanto Investigation", Annals of the EPA: Part 4.
7. Ibid.
8. ENDS Report 28l June 1998.
9. Op.cit.6.

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