The name Agent Orange became synonymous with the horrors of modern chemical warfare. Between 1961 and 1971 the U.S. military used an estimated 20 million gallons of the toxic cocktail to destroy the dense foliage of the Vietnamese rainforest, with devastating results for the people who lived there. But its use did not end there. Surplus from the Agent Orange stockpile was used back home in the U.S. even after Congress banned its use in Vietnam.
In the spring of 1975, a county truck drove past Carol van Strum’s property in coastal Oregon. On the back were two men holding hoses. They sprayed huge quantities of a liquid all over the area. “They were like competing with one another, who could spray the furthest,” van Strum told The Daily Beast. From their truck the liquid drenched the land, the waves rolling toward the nearby river. “The river runs through our property but it’s right on the edge, really. The kids were down there, fishing and playing in it. I’m assuming they didn’t see the kids, but they sprayed them directly. By the evening they were all really sick.”
Van Strum went down to the river the next day to see if there had been any impact on life down there. “The river was full of dead ducklings and dead crawdads and fish floating around, bobbing along the edges. In the bushes nearby we found a hermit thrush sitting on a nest but she was dead. It was very obvious that something really, really poisonous had been sprayed,” she said.
Alarmed, van Strum called the county to ask what had been in the truck. Had there been a mistake? “Oh, no,” they answered, “It’s just 2,4 D and 2,4,5,T. It’s absolutely as safe as table salt, it couldn’t have hurt them.” That was the point when van Strum and her husband decided to drive over to the university library, some 50 miles away. What they discovered was that the truck had been filled with Agent Orange. Its use by the U.S. military had already been banned in Vietnam.
A few weeks later, the poultry on the van Strum family’s farm started hatching with strange deformities. “Within the next few weeks, we had chickens and ducks and geese with no wings or deformed wings, with their feet on backward and crossed beaks,” van Strum told The Daily Beast from her home in Oregon. According to van Strum, the U.S. government must have been aware of the destructive power of Agent Orange, and so must the chemical companies.
“In 1965, the government itself had done studies to the effects of the ingredients of Agent Orange 2,4-D and 2,4,5,-T and found that both chemicals seriously caused birth defects in test animals,” she said. “You can’t say the government didn’t know, I don’t think they understood the scale of what was going on, and they certainly didn’t know about the dioxin content of that time.”
Agent Orange was also used all along the West Coast—from California to Washington State and as far inland as Idaho.
The decades-long battle to hold the companies who produced Agent Orange to account reached the French high court this month. French-Vietnamese victim Tran To Nga brought a civil case against 14 major producers of the chemicals in an effort to hold them accountable for her illness, and that of her children and grandchildren. Although the U.S. Veterans Affairs department acknowledges birth defects in children of Vietnam vets, no chemical company has been held accountable for the Vietnamese casualties of Agent Orange.
Nga has been engaged in a long battle to change that but the high court ruled her claims inadmissible this month, taking the position that it was not within the competence of a French court to make judgements on the defense policy of a foreign state at war. Nga and her team of lawyers immediately announced that they would appeal the decision. This legal battle of epic proportions began in 2015 when she filed suit against 14 big chemical and pharmaceutical Agent Orange producers, including Monsanto, Dow and Hercules. It is not over yet.
“Nobody suspects a little girl in a party dress.”
— Tran To Nga.
Nga, a survivor of the Vietnam war who was exposed to the extremely toxic defoliant, is suing the companies for damages to her health, that of her children and grandchildren, as well as “millions of others.” She also sued over the impact on the environment.
Talking to Nga on a video link to her living room in Paris, the 79-year-old seemed almost ageless with her dainty features. It is difficult to imagine that various different cancers are raging through her body and dioxin is still running through her system. “They took a piece of my skin for the trial and tested it for dioxin, it is a funny thing to say, but I was happy that they could find it,” she said.
Nga’s life story is a tale of turbulence and activism. At the age of 12, she joined the resistance against French colonial rule in Vietnam. Nga would transport small, rolled-up messages. “Nobody suspects a little girl in a pretty dress,” she said. After French rule ended and the Vietnam War started, she began reporting for the Vietcong. “We spent most of our time in the tunnels.” she said, describing the events leading up to this moment. It was during that time as a young journalist for the Vietcong news agency in South Vietnam that she was first exposed to Agent Orange, back in 1966.
“We were in Cuchi, near Saigon, where the U.S. military had started defoliating around a military base. One day, as we heard airplanes flying over, I decided to take a peek outside. High up in the air I could just see the plane moving out of sight. It left big white clouds of powder trailing behind it,” she said. “The powder mixed with the humidity of the jungle and changed into a sort of sticky liquid. It drenched me from top to toe. It made me cough, I was choking.”
It was unpleasant but Nga thought nothing more of it afterward. Unaware of the scale of the danger, she didn’t think twice about walking through fields wet from the recent spraying. And she had no reason to think back to that chemical exposure years later when tragedy struck the family.
“I didn’t even consider those moments when my first child died shortly after it was born. For years after I just felt so guilty, I was her mother and she was born ill,” Nga said. “When my second daughter was born with blood and skin conditions I still thought it was all me.”
Even when her third daughter was born with birth defects, she did not make the connection.
Only 40 years after her encounter with Agent Orange, did she realize the cause of this horrific chain of events could have been something that happened so long ago.
Agent Orange has caused overwhelming damage to the Vietnamese environment and appears to have done the same to the people who lived there. The war ended almost five decades ago, but for many Vietnamese, this silent killer lingers, and keeps wreaking havoc. According to the Vietnamese Red Cross, at least one million Vietnamese suffer from the long term effects of exposure to Agent Orange. They suffer from ailments varying from different kinds of cancers and diabetes, to miscarriages and generational birth defects. Even the current generation of Vietnamese children is coping with Agent Orange associated afflictions. Different medical studies have linked all these problems to the long-term effects of exposure to Agent Orange.
In a documentary called The People vs Agent Orange that is scheduled to air on June 28 on PBS, directors Alan Adelson and Kate Taverna investigated the devastation brought about by Agent Orange in Vietnam and beyond. The film quotes from U.S. government documents that demonstrate the internal debate over the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam.
“What, a lawsuit, at my age?”
— Tran To Nga.
In the papers, Agent Orange is reportedly described not only as an agent to increase visibility, but also a poison intended to deprive the Vietnamese resistance and population, then called the “enemy,” of its food. Agent Orange did exactly that, and more. It contaminated the food and water supply, causing serious birth defects that are handed down from one generation to the next.
It all started with the U.S. government starting an action under the defense supply act, a few years into the Vietnam war. It required every company that had the productive means, to produce Agent Orange for the war effort. “Every gallon they produced would be purchased by the government at a profitable rate to the companies.” Adelson explains. “The more they produced, the more money they would make. As a result of that, they decided to produce the herbicide at a very high temperature—that would produce much more, much more quickly. But the consequence was, that it produced dioxin in the process.”
It makes it all the more unimaginable that a governmental organization like the U.S. Forest Service would decide to go on using Agent Orange on its own people, its own soil.
This ramp up in production meant there was plenty going spare when Agent Orange was banished from the battlefield in Vietnam.
Van Strum, back in Oregon, says the companies were not about to let it go to waste.
“The spraying essentially started when our government banned the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. All the production of chemical companies like Monsanto, Dow, Hercules and the others, was going into making Agent Orange. They had expanded their facilities for it, had all this infrastructure to make huge quantities of it, and had to find a use for it and that’s what they did here.”
That the dioxins in the defoliant cause different forms of cancer is not disputed by most scientists, including the World Health Organization. On its website it states: “Short-term exposure of humans to high levels of dioxins may result in skin lesions, such as chloracne and patchy darkening of the skin, and altered liver function. Long-term exposure is linked to impairment of the immune system, the developing nervous system, the endocrine system and reproductive functions.”
Chronic exposure of animals to dioxins has resulted in several types of cancer. The dioxin TCDD, which was present in Agent Orange, was evaluated by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer in 1997 and 2012. Based on animal data and on human epidemiology data, it was classified as a “known human carcinogen.”
They say there is no way of telling how a person got cancer and whether Agent Orange was responsible for it. In the court case in Paris, the companies contested their responsibility for Nga’s illness arguing that the defoliant was used by the U.S. Army, not by them.
In 2009, Nga was approached by William Bourdon, a French lawyer, who wanted to represent her in a case against the chemical companies. “Of course I said ‘No way!’ What, a lawsuit, at my age?” Nga told The Daily Beast. It took some convincing to get Nga to take on the case. “He told me that this case would not just be for my own benefit. This case would be for all the people who suffered from Agent Orange poisoning.”
When asked why she was continuing to fight, Nga said: “My ultimate goal is that this trial sets a precedent, not only for Vietnamese people, but anyone around the world. So, anyone who suffered from the consequences of exposure to Agent Orange can start proceedings against the chemical producers. What I want is justice and recognition for the plight of all those who had to experience the aftereffects of exposure to Agent Orange.”
In Oregon, the forest service finally stopped using 2,4,5 T dioxin in 1978, although timber companies and other entities were still using it until it was banned in 1984. It continues to use the 2,4-D component to this day. The Environmental Protection Agency published their findings about the spraying in a paper in 1979, stating that: “There is a statistically significant cross-correlation between the study area Spontaneous abortion (miscarriages) index and spray patterns in terms of pounds applied by months in the Alsea basin, 1972-1977, after a lag time of two or three months.”
In other words, two or three months after spraying dioxin, the miscarriage rate went up significantly. Unfortunately, Oregon was not the only area Agent Orange was used in the U.S. “We found out the herbicide was also sprayed in the forest of the Pacific Northwest, Idaho, in Washington and in Northern California. “I think there should be compensation for all Oregon and U.S. victims too,” said van Strum. “Or at least acknowledgement.”