Blowback: A Canadian History of Agent Orange and the War at Home

May 22nd, 2009 - by admin

Chris Arsenault / – 2009-05-22 09:57:19

Blowback: A Canadian History of Agent Orange and the War at Home
Chris Arsenault (Fernwood Publishing, 2009)

The reason for this spraying was simple: kill trees and other brush to make room for training areas, shooting ranges, road construction and other projects. In a sense, it should not be surprising that contractors and the government itself tried to save money on labour costs at the expense of human health and the natural environment. In a market-driven economic system, this, sadly, is just the cost of doing business.

The United States first used the chemical components of Agent Orange in the late 1940s, mostly for agricultural purposes. In the late 50s and 60s, Canadian government departments such as National Defence routinely sprayed Agent Orange across CFB Gagetown. During this period, Dow Chemical, the principal manufacturer of 2,4,5-T, the most dangerous component of Agent Orange, affixed the following warning to each can of defoliant produced for domestic use in the United States: “Do not contaminate irrigation ditches or water used for domestic purposes. Caution. May cause skin irritation. Avoid contact with eyes, skin and clothing. Keep out of reach of children.”

Canadian sprayers working for the Department of National Defence and private contractors say they did not get these basic warnings. “We were told this stuff was safe enough to drink,” recalls Ken Dobbie, who, as a 19-year-old in 1966, worked a government-financed summer job clearing defoliant-soaked brush at Gagetown. “We handled this stuff [defoliated brush] with our bare hands. We were stripped to the waist because of the heat. It wiped across our bodies all the time.” Officials responsible for the safety of soldiers ignored clear warnings from Dow Chemical, hardly a group of weak-kneed environmentalists, on how to “safely” use its product.

With no protective equipment, Ken Dobbie spent six weeks on the base working with defoliants, repeating the routine of clearing Agent Orange soaked brush every day, until August 1966. The sickness began that December. Today, Dobbie suffers from brain atrophy, neurological disorders, thyroid growths, toxic hepatitis, blood disorders, relative polysciemia, type 2 diabetes and other ailments. “These diseases don’t run in my family, there is no genetic history on either side,” says Dobbie, who is president of the Agent Orange Association of Canada, one of two prominent citizens’ advocacy groups representing soldiers and civilians affected by spraying programs. “I’ve been sick for 39 years. I have a host of different disorders,” says Dobbie, who’s in his late 50s and takes nine different kinds of medications, including a daily dose of Demerol because of “constant pain.”

Dr. Robert West, Dobbie’s family physician, told the CBC that his patient has no family history of these diseases or conditions like drug use or alcoholism that could explain them. Instead, Dr. West believes Dobbie’s symptoms point to chemical exposure and “would suggest an immediate exposure to something.”

Ken Dobbie is now a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit that former sprayers have launched against the government for its negligent use of chemical defoliants at the base. “The military and government have consistently tried to frame this as an issue affecting a small group of service people,” he says. “Through all those years, tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people were affected.” In 2006, a federally sponsored, fact-finding mission tasked with investigating Agent Orange spraying confirmed Dobbie’s estimate. The mission found records for more than 115,001 individuals stationed at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown when defoliant spraying was taking place. Many of these people now live in other parts of the country or the world, meaning that this is a national issue rather than just a provincial problem.

During the time that Dobbie was spraying in the 1960s, US Government scientists were well aware of dioxin contamination and other dangers associated with Agent Orange. According to Dr. James Clary, a former US government scientist with the Chemical Weapons branch at Eglin, Florida, “When we [military scientists] initiated the herbicide program in the 1960’s, 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.

In the winter of 2007, I was a guest of the Government of Vietnam at an Agent Orange victims conference in Ho Chi Minh City. Signs of America’s wartime defoliation campaign could still be seen around the hyper-capitalist bustle of the city once called Saigon. Children with limbs that were neither arms nor legs hustled for spare change near tourist destinations. A beggar near my hotel, a deformed bald woman, wore the tell-tale signs of dioxin exposure. Her badly rashed skin peeled and literally rotted in the concrete heat. Despite multiple attempts by the Vietnamese to seek justice and reparations in US courts, justice has been denied. As Princeton international law professor emeritus Richard Falk notes, “a victorious state or a state with geopolitical clout [read the United States] tends to be exempted from any accountability for its environmentally destructive wartime policies.”

Average Vietnamese, unlike Canadians, are keenly aware of their country’s history with Agent Orange. On a break from the Agent Orange conference, I was drinking thick coffee sweetened with carnation milk with my translator, an accomplished young foreign correspondent with one of Vietnam’s largest newspapers. He turned to me with a perplexed look when the conversation came to a pause. He could not understand how the Government of Canada could spray its own people. Vietnam was still suffering, he said, but Canada had not been at war when our tragedy happened. My translator, who had covered the war in Lebanon and other conflicts, simply could not wrap his head around Canada’s history with Agent Orange.

During his announcement of the compensation package, Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson told veterans and civilians that “we may never know what really happened with Agent Orange.” On this matter, at this time, Thompson is partially correct. There are still many unanswered questions. But much is clear. By 1964, at the latest, the Canadian government had information that its workers were spraying dangerous chemicals. If the federal government and the Department of National Defence did not know this, they should have. Regardless of who knew what, or when, it is clear that the chemicals were applied in such a way as to create unnecessarily negative health and environmental hazards.

Spray plane operators should have taken better care not to poison farm land near the base. Private contractors working for the DND should have, at the very least, required their workers to follow the manufacturers’ directions when they applied the defoliants. Workers and soldiers should have been provided with proper protective equipment by their private bosses and higher-ranking officers, as the manufacturers explicitly stated. Clearly, young people who sprayed the chemicals for both private contractors and the DND should not have been told that Agent Orange was safe enough to drink. “We were never told how dangerous this was,” says Wayne Cardinal. “We were never told.”

The Government of Canada, guided by the logic of the free market’s hidden hand, negated its most basic responsibilities in safeguarding human and environmental health. The desire to cheaply spray problems away speaks to larger issues in advanced capitalist nations: the illusion of technological progress entwined with the broader economic super-structure pushes the marvels of science and human ingenuity into developing dangerous quick fixes like Agent Orange. The government invested in technology that saved money while destroying lives. And, unfortunately, this is a mistake that we as a society have yet to learn from.

The Canadian government should not have invited American scientists from Fort Detrick to spray Agent Purple at the base when that chemical had been banned for use in the war against the Viet Cong. It is likely that more facts will be found during the class-action lawsuit, and perhaps some more definitive answers for thousands of sick veterans and civilians will follow. However, knowingly or unknowingly, it is a fact that the Government of Canada, through the Department of National Defence, sprayed its own people with Agent Orange. This should be remembered as a national tragedy.

Journalist Chris Arsenault investigates the arrival of Agent Orange to Canada and tells the stories of locals that suffered its effects in this excerpt from Blowback.


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