CBS2.com – 2007-09-05 23:24:46
An Analysis Of The Chemical Herbicide And Its Health Effects
CHICAGO (September 2, 2007) — During the eight years of the Vietnam War that the U.S. Military dusted the Vietnamese landscape with Agent Orange, it was only intended to kill vegetation.
It was a combination of two herbicides – 2,4D and 2,4,5T – mixed together into the most potent plant killer ever made. It was spread over 3 1/2 million acres of forests and crops to kill the trees and vegetation so the United States troops could see the enemy.
The Armed Forces were told it was harmless.
But in March 1978, Bill Kurtis broke the story on CBS 2 that American veterans of Vietnam who had been exposed to Agent Orange were complaining of illnesses, birth defects among their children, skin rashes, cancer, nervous problems and respiratory problems.
Scientists said an ingredient within the herbicides called dioxin was capable of causing the problems. Dioxin was a contaminant of the manufacturing process of 2,4,5T, and also the most toxic substance made by man.
In the late 1970s, studies already showed dioxin caused birth defects in laboratory animals from rats to monkeys, cancer, and a variety of other problems, there was little data to show its effect on human beings.
But by 1980, more than 5,000 claims had been filed with the Veterans Administration naming Agent Orange as the cause of illness. Only a handful had received benefits, because at the time, the government link between Agent Orange and human problems was still unclear.
The videos in this story are from the third installment in an award-winning of documentaries on Agent Orange that aired on CBS 2 between 1978 and 1980. In search of an answer to the Agent Orange question, Kurtis traveled to Vietnam in January 1980.
Agent Orange Turns Forests Into Wastelands
It was 1972 when a team from the National Academy of Sciences made a trip up the Saigon River looking for the effects of the aerial spraying of Agent Orange. Two Vietnamese scientists made the trip with them, and also joined Kurtis and his CBS 2 crew when they made the trip eight years later.
Both worked as environmentalists in the delta area south of Saigon, where the most graphic results of the defoliation could still be seen.
The Saigon River dumped into the basin at the delta, and for centuries, mangrove trees as high as 60 feet grew there. But the trees were a problem for the French became a camouflage for the Viet Cong to infiltrate not only Saigon, but all of South Vietnam.
When the United States came in, the delta was made an A-1 military target, and troops sprayed it with Agent Orange time and time again. By 1980, all that remained was a thick mud; even the roots of the mangroves had been destroyed.
The Vietnamese had planted new trees, which seemed to be doing well, but it was expensive and hard work. In addition, poachers were cutting down the trees and selling them for firewood.
When the mangroves died, so did the biological chain of support for the wildlife – birds, fish and shrimp that grew in the thousands of inlets weaving threw the trees. In 1980, some people were trying to attract shrimp back, but that proved to be a difficult task, since the plants the shrimp fed on were gone.
But there was a growing pessimism about the National Academy of Science estimate that the huge trees would grow back in 100 years. One look at the muddy no-man’s land and it was easy to believe they would never grow back.
Agent Orange was also sprayed in the hills between Saigon and Vung Tau, which was the site of the very first spray mission in 1962. Huge areas of the highway were sprayed for a sensible reason – guerrillas could use underbrush and dense forests to crawl close to the highway and ambush traffic.
But it left a trail of damage that was still seen 13 years after the heaviest spraying. The hills were bare and scrubby and the tropical growth was gone. Erosion had left the boulders standing bare on the hillside.
Along the road it was a changed setting. Where forests once stood, now grasses grew. But Vietnamese botanists said they were the wrong grasses, changing the environment and forcing the local farmers to adapt as well.
In all, 3 to 5 million acres of land had been stripped bare.
Near the Cambodian border just 60 miles from Saigon, another kind of damage was visible. A small hut occupied by a family from the area had not long before been filled with American troops, for it sat on the edge of an old helicopter base.
It was more than a mile to the nearest tree line. A perfect circle had been cleared away by bulldozers, and the area had then been sprayed with defoliants to keep the foliage down. It was a protective ring around the base to prevent the enemy from infiltrating close.
Ten years after the last spraying of Agent Orange in the area, there was still no vegetation within the perimeter that stood taller than a man. And any spraying of the perimeter would, of course, be close to the men stationed there.
In the surrounding forests, B-52s pounded the eucalyptus trees, as well as the white spray from American planes. The once-thick forest was left scrubby and loosely scattered with lifeless trees.
Local farmers set fires to try to clear them away, in an effort to push forward their rice paddies. But it was difficult work, and the soil was suited for a forest, not a rice paddy.
Seemingly lush grasses grew between the trees, but the Vietnamese government said they were useless, like fast-growing weeds.
A Study Of The Human Damage In Vietnam
It was easy to see the damage Agent Orange caused on the land. But trying to study the human damage in a widely dispersed rural population like that of southern Vietnam was nearly impossible.
So the Vietnamese concentrated their studies on human effects of herbicide spraying, in the Hanoi area.
At Viet Duc University Hospital in the center of Hanoi, Dr. Ton That Tung — the leading medical specialist in Vietnam’s north — structured a respected medical reputation on talent and the Vietnamese determination that was evident under the U.S. bombing during the war.
In April 1979, Dr. Tung came to Chicago and appeared on the CBS 2 panel interview program “Newsmakers.” There he realized the deep interest in the effects of Agent Orange on US veterans.
Tung returned to Hanoi to begin his study on north Vietnam veterans. He found study subjects northwest of Hanoi in the province of Yen Bai. They were North Vietnamese soldiers who had fought in the south and returned to marry in the north.
In order to find out what would be abnormal effects among the veterans, Tung found a control group of civilians and veterans who had not been exposed to Agent Orange.
There was no epidemiologist in Vietnam, so Tung fashioned his own health survey as best he could. He sent members of his own surgical team and medical students to gather data and conduct interviews of patients.
From 1975 until 1979, the group reported 214 abortions and premature deliveries. Among the remaining 1,187 births, doctors found 43 birth defects.
One family that came in had a child with no eyes. Another was born with no arms, and small protrusions in the place of his fingers.
Tung interpreted the number of birth defects among his exposed group as double those in his control group. He interpreted the birth defects as a significant link between Agent Orange and human problems.
The children’s fathers, all North Vietnamese veterans, told a story similar to those told by U.S. veterans – a story of spraying, as seen by someone on the ground. They reported breathing problems, skin irritations, and other problems.
Tung began studying the effects of herbicide spraying when the first deformed babies were born in South Vietnam. But his attempts to link the spray to liver cancer in the south simply lacked scientific data, although the international medical community regarded them as interesting.
American scientists had the same feelings about Tung’s study of birth defects. They said the cases were suggestive, interesting and certainly inspired further study, but the epidemiological methods lacked the scientific thoroughness that would allow the figures to become the definitive work on dioxin’s effect on humans.
“In none of the studies that he described in the paper was there a frequency of birth defects greater than 3 percent in anything he called abnormal or in anything he called control or normal,” said University of Illinois Medical Center toxicologist Dr. John Bederka. “By definition, he has not shown any frequency of birth defects that is abnormal.”
Bederka said a study of a larger population was needed. Meanwhile, epidemiologist Dr. Marion Moses of New York’s Mt. Sinai Medical School said Tung’s study should be a wake-up call in the .S.
“It makes it incumbent… on other researchers to take this problem seriously. This is the important thing. We must take this problem seriously, and try to answer that question,” Moses said, “and I think this is the value of Dr. Tung’s work, is he is saying to us, ‘We consider this a serious problem,’ and I think we must respond to that here in the United States.”
Tung was aware of the shortcomings of his study, and the limits on medical research due to poverty in his country. But even if his study was not the definitive answer, Tung hoped it would help lead there. And it did show the view was strikingly similar to that in the United States.
Dioxin And US Industrial Workers
In April 1979, the small town of Nitro, West Virginia, had one of the heaviest concentrations of chemical companies in the country.
Like the withered forests and birth defects in Vietnam, it held the attention of those most deeply involved in the Agent Orange controversy. An accident at the Monsanto plant in 1949 provided one of the rare opportunities in the world to observe long-term effects of dioxin in human beings.
In the accident, during an intermediate stage of the production of the 2,4,5T herbicide, a safety valve released a white, powdery substance that included to dioxin. A total of 117 men were exposed then, and 111 others were exposed to a lesser extent.
That group of men became a target of a key study on the effect of dioxin on humans.
The Monsanto case became a test tube and the workers objects of study to determine if their health was impaired by exposure to dioxin. Monsanto sponsored one study, the labor union sponsored another independently.
The Steelworkers’ Union brought in a team from Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York to examine the men, with a painstaking series of interviews and physical tests.
Paul Willard was exposed to the dioxin and still felt it three decades later.
“Since we had the exposure, about all I can do is get up and down this hill, and sometimes I can’t even talk to anybody, I get so nervous,” Willard said. “My leg hurt me so bad I cried and begged him to take it off, and my gums broke out with it.”
The most visible malady that lingered from the men’s bout with dioxin was chloracne, a facial condition. The researchers were surprised to find that 30 years after exposure, it remained severe.
“If you open or burst one of these bumps, my opinion is they’re real stinkers,” said Omar Cunningham. “They smell like rotten eggs to me.”
The workers who volunteered for the examinations had definitive ideas about links between dioxin and human problems.
They talked about contamination in the plants, spoke of birth defects in their children, and Plant workers talked about birth defects among their children, and those who had died. Listening to the men and seeing them, there did not seem to be any question that dioxin had caused severe health problems. But Monsanto management disagreed.
“Based upon the evidence we have available to us at this point, we believe there are no long-term major hazards to human health beyond this chloracne problem,” said Lee Miller of the Special Chemicals Division at Monsanto. “We simply haven’t seen it.”
Miller said cancer and birth defects could not be proven.
The Monsanto-sponsored study was a mortality investigation, and found that those exposed to dioxin were not dying faster than those exposed. But the Mt. Sinai team said such a study was not enough, and required more time.
Agent Orange: A View From A US Veteran
In 1980, Verlin Belcher was working in a steel mill in Burns Harbor, Ind. But 11 years earlier, he was spraying Agent Orange in Vietnam, for 35 days in a row during one period.
“I got it splashed all over me,” Belcher said. “We were getting shot at, and the pilot got scared, I guess, and hit a tree and knocked the spray arm off, and all the chemical come pouring out. So I took my shirt off and plugged the hole up to keep the door gunner from getting soaked with it, but he was soaked anyway.”
Belcher got a rash and was passing blood, but his problems certainly did not compare to veterans who were dying of cancer and blaming it on Agent Orange. What made him special was that he was one of 33 men chosen by the Veterans Administration to be tested to determine if they still had dioxin in their fatty tissue.
Other scientists scoffed at the idea, expecting to find nothing. But 10 veterans were found to have dioxin in their tissues, and Belcher had the most.
“I knew I had it because I sprayed the stuff,” Belcher said. “All I did was just get it confirmed.”
But instead of providing answers, the VA doctors only raised more questions. They wanted to know where the dioxin came from, how long it had been there, and what illnesses it had caused.
The veterans responded with their own inquiry. How many questions must be asked before the VA concludes there is a link between the chemicals and the veterans’ dioxin levels.
Debate Continues As Chemical Lingers
In the time since the Agent Orange controversy began, cancers including Hodgkin’s disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and soft tissue sarcoma have been associated with dioxin, as has type II diabetes, as well as spina bifida among children.
But studies have not indicated a final conclusion about the extent to which Agent Orange itself can be blamed for these diseases, and many questions remain unanswered.
In 1984, U.S. veterans exposed to Agent Orange won a $180 million out-of-court settlement of a class action lawsuit against the chemical companies that manufactured the defoliant.
But in 2005, a lawsuit against chemical companies by Vietnamese citizens who said they had suffered negative health effects from Agent Orange was dismissed. In U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, Judge Jack Weinstein ruled that the Agent Orange did not violate international law, as the lawsuit claimed.
Meanwhile, a study has found that contamination from Agent Orange remains in Vietnam. In June 2007, soil test by Hatfield Consultants of Canada found dioxin levels 300 to 400 times higher than internationally accepted limits at a former air base in Danang.
President Bush and Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet have agreed to work together to address dioxin contamination at old Agent Orange storage sites.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
(© MMVII, CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.)
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.
• Agent Orange Turns Forests Into Wastelands
• A Study Of The Human Damage In Vietnam
• Dioxin And U.S. Industrial Workers
• Agent Orange: A View From A U.S. Veteran
• Debate Continues As Chemical Lingers