Last week we went deep down the rabbit hole looking into Monsanto’s PCBs past. It was a dark journey, and although we don’t need to go quite as deep this time, we’re still hitting those dark tunnels, especially if you or someone you know served in the Vietnam War during the 1960s or early ’70s. That’s because today I’m addressing Monsanto’s involvement with Agent Orange.
Agent Orange History
Agent Orange was one of several herbicides commissioned by the US government during the Vietnam War for what they called Operation Ranch Hand, a military operation that officially began on January 13, 1962. Ranch Hand’s objective was to clear foliage from key strategic areas in Vietnam, in an effort to control the movements of the Viet Cong army, and also to weaken the enemy’s food supply – to destroy their harvests.
A quick fyi – we sprayed millions of gallons of these herbicides across Vietnam. It was by no means subtle, and both the Vietnamese and American soldiers were readily exposed to the chemicals, which at the time the US government’s official, publicized take on was that they were not toxic to humans. After all, these were the same chemicals our farmers were using on crops back home, so how could they be toxic? Well… the concentrations used on Vietnam were significantly different from what we used in agriculture back home. From a sheer concentration and volume standpoint, this looked nothing like American farming. To put it bluntly, Operation Ranch Hand was essentially weed, foliage and crop assassination.
Although Agent Orange actually wasn’t thrown into the mix until 1965, three years into the operation, it accounted for roughly 60% of the herbicide use in Operation Ranch Hand when all was said and done. Other mixtures in the US arsenal included Agent Pink, Agent White, Agent Blue… and a few others that all earned their color designations simply from the colored stripes placed on the 55 gallon drums that the products were shipped in. Each color signified a different herbicide, and Agent Orange was actually a mixture of two – it was half 2,4,5-T and half 2,4-D. Both of those will mean something later, but for now understand that 2,4,5-T was considered the main culprit in all the Agent Orange controversy. And why is that? Well one word: DIOXIN.
Although the regular grade version of Agent Orange did not have a dioxin issue, the military grade version of it did. That’s because the military needed the herbicide produced faster than normal, and speeding up the process is what caused the dioxin contamination. Unfortunately, the contaminant wasn’t just any dioxin either, as it turned out to be the one referred to as TCDD, considered the most toxic of all the dioxins.
Here’s a link to the EPA’s Enivronmental Assessment page on Dioxin if you’d like to read more. In the meantime, here’s a quick summary:
“Almost every living creature has been exposed to dioxins. Studies have shown that exposure to dioxins at high enough levels may cause a number of adverse health effects, including cancer. The health effects associated with dioxins depend on a variety of factors including: the level of exposure, when someone was exposed, and for how long and how often someone is exposed.”
It’s ironic that the EPA mentions cancer, because although they’ve documented thorough research on the analysis of non-cancer health effects from TCDD exposure, analyzing the cancer side of that equation seems to be an issue for them and almost everyone else. And oddly enough, the EPA just doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to finish the process. They published their final “non-cancer health effects” analysis in February 2012, and then publicly stated the following:
“EPA will complete Reanalysis, Volume 2, containing the full dioxin cancer assessment, as expeditiously as possible.” (EPA’s Science Plan for Activities Related to Dioxins in the Environment)
It’s now been almost a full 3 years, almost to the day, and well I guess expeditiously must mean more than 3 years to the EPA. Regardless of the in-depth analysis, again they’ve clearly stated that “exposure to dioxins at high enough levels may cause a number of adverse health effects, including cancer.”
But as you’ll see in a minute, no one seems to want to make a clear connection between cancer and dioxin. I’ve read conflicting studies, conflicting peer reviews of studies, and a big part of the problem is that dioxins are already prevalent in our environment, so there hasn’t been a real dioxin-free control group – we’ve pretty much all been exposed to dioxin at this point. Perhaps the best chance at a control group came from some Monsanto studies of their own workers, and we’ll go into that in a few…
Before we dig deeper into Monsanto’s role in any of this though, let me make it crystal clear that, regardless of any conflicting studies, etc, it’s no secret that our Vietnam veterans suffer from a wide array of ailments. That’s very well-documented, and for the ailments themselves we’re talking facts, not fiction. Here is a list of the diseases considered related to Agent Orange. Veterans who meet the criteria for Agent Orange exposure AND have one of these diseases are eligible for Disability compensation.
First off, the cancers, which are:
- Hodgkin disease
- Multiple myeloma
- Non-Hodgkin lymphoma
- Prostate cancer
- Cancer of the lung, bronchus, larynx (voice box), or trachea (windpipe)
- Certain Soft tissue sarcomas
- And 3 different leukemias
And there are several non-cancer conditions as well, including Type 2 diabetes and Parkinson disease. Spina Bifida and certain other birth defects in the children of veterans are also included.
Click here to view the American Cancer Society’s well-researched and documented page on Agent Orange and Cancer if you’d like to see the full list of all these, and a whole lot more. It’s actually a great spot to see a bunch of the conflicting information all in one place.
Monsanto Agent Orange
Now you can argue, in relation to Agent Orange, that because its primary use was a direct result of a US government request during the War, that Monsanto can only be held responsible to a certain degree. And as you’ll see, that’s kind of how the courts look at it now. Also, Monsanto was by no means alone in manufacturing the substance. There were 7 total companies making Agent Orange, and pretty much all of it was, at least to some extent, contaminated with dioxin.
For us here today, the three big questions we need to answer are:
- Was Monsanto’s Agent Orange dioxin contamination any worse than the other companies?
- Did dioxin even cause the veterans harm in the first place?
- Did Monsanto know about the dioxin contamination and its dangers upfront?
Well how this whole ugly episode first came to light was that once all these Vietnam veterans started falling ill, lawsuits soon followed. In 1984, Agent Orange manufacturers Dow Chemical, Monsanto, Uniroyal, and the four other companies all agreed to a class action settlement of $180 million – to be paid to Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange. The funds were distributed between 1988 and 1996, and even though Monsanto was only one of several defendants, they were ordered by the Judge to pay 45.5% of that $180 million.
Now why the heck would Monsanto be required to foot nearly half the bill? Because not only did they supply the most Agent Orange (although only slightly more than Dow Chemical), but Monsanto’s 2,4,5-T had the highest dioxin content of any Agent Orange manufacturer. In fact, some of its supplies contained 47 times as much dioxin as those from Dow, which actually resulted in Dow paying significantly less in the settlement than Monsanto did, despite the two companies supplying similar amounts of the herbicide. In other words, the biggest manufacturer of Agent Orange, Monsanto, was also deemed the most reckless in its production.
So there’s your answer to question #1. Was Monsanto’s Agent Orange dioxin contamination any worse than the other companies? Yes it was. Much worse.
As for question #2, did dioxin actually cause harm, well, that’s where all these conflicting studies come into play and in a similar fashion to researching GMOs, it can make your head spin. But to get a clear picture of Monsanto’s involvement, we’ve got to go back to that 1984 settlement, which, as one of the veterans’ attorneys called it, was “a pittance”. 40,000 veterans received amounts as low $256 and the amounts maxed at $12,800. So with the amounts being so low, why did they settle?
Well a little bit ago I mentioned that Monsanto had perhaps the best chance at a control group for dioxin testing, because they had data going all the way back to 1949, when there was an accident at their factory in Nitro, WV. In 1980, 1983, and 1984, Monsanto published 3 separate studies on dioxin, studies supervised by Raymond Suskind in collaboration with two of Monsanto’s scientists. Those 3 peer-reviewed studies showed no connection between the dioxin exposure and cancer, and the final one in 1984 dealt a serious blow to the trial hopes of the veterans.
But… that’s not quite how the story ends, because a few months before that settlement hit, another trial began in Illinois – Kemner vs. Monsanto. Kemner, a farmer in Sturgeon, MO and 21 other families from Sturgeon, were suing Monsanto over a chemical spill that released what amounted to just a teaspoonful of the TCDD dioxin (yes that’s how toxic the stuff is). The trial garnered national attention because it took about 3.5 years to complete. In fact on the day when Rex Carr, the Kemner attorney, finally spoke his closing arguments to the jury, he said ”Once you sign your verdict sheets, this case will go down in the Guinness Book of World Records.” Let’s just say it was not a banner trial for our justice system. (Kemner vs Monsanto Trial)
Another Monsanto Controversy
What came to light during the trial, however, was the truth about those 3 Monsanto studies I mentioned, from 1980, ’83 and ’84, where Monsanto said they proved there was no connection between dioxin exposure and cancer. And that held up… for about one whole year, until the studies were more closely examined, and then Monsanto’s Dr. George Roush, who had helped published the studies, was cross-examined during the trial.
It turns out Suskind, the man responsible for supervising, was caught manipulating key data in all 3 studies. In the first two, the studies manipulated who was considered “exposed” to the dioxin vs. “not exposed”, so the rates of cancer appeared significantly lower than they really were. The number of cancer deaths was actually double what they reported. As for the final study in 1984, again, roughly twice as many cancers occurred as were actually reported, and in that study, Suskind just flat out omitted half the people. And these were small studies, so those kinds of fluctuations had a huge impact on the data, and of course the conclusions drawn from the data.
Now I will say – we are requesting court documents on this exact trial because I’ve read this same report in several places, but have seen variances in the numbers every single time – which to me is a red flag and needs to be confirmed. As soon as we have the documents in hand I will confirm exact numbers right here accordingly.
And it references this exact study from the New England Journal of Medicine 1991 as well, titled Cancer Mortality In Workers Exposed to 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-Dioxin
So Dr. Roush admitted that in those three early 1980s studies, Raymond Suskind fudged the data, and that is not a good precedent for Monsanto to set, especially when we’re way past the “pleading chemical ignorance” of the 1950s and early ’60s that we saw with PCBs.
So to finish off question #2, did dioxin, and specifically TCDD, cause Vietnam veterans harm? Well, that’s a question that no one of authority seems to want to definitively answer. We’ve got multiple places that clearly consider TCDD to be a human carcinogen, like the EPA as I mentioned earlier: “Exposure to dioxins at high enough levels may cause a number of adverse health effects, including cancer.”
Then the US Dept. of Veteran Affairs says:
“Dioxin is a highly toxic substance found in Agent Orange and some other herbicides. Studies suggest that this chemical may be related to a number of cancers and other health effects in humans.”
And then there’s this from “Mortality patterns of Army Chemical Corps veterans who were occupationally exposed to herbicides in Vietnam”, which states in its conclusion that:
“The risk of mortality from respiratory disease (malignant or nonmalignant) was significantly greater for Army Chemical Corps Vietnam veterans in comparison with their non-Vietnam veteran peers and U.S. men. Herbicide exposure could be contributing to the patterns observed.”
Let’s do one more, from that aforementioned report from The National Research Council:
A study of the largest cohort of exposed workers ever studied finds that workers exposed to dioxin have increased death rates from overall cancer, as well as from soft-tissue sarcoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Now in all the studies I looked at, that soft-tissue sarcoma they mention there was the most frequently occurring cancer. If you’re not familiar with what that is, soft tissue sarcoma is a type of cancer that begins in the soft tissues of your body, and the most common types occur in the abdomen and in the arms and legs.
That reminds me, just one more… in a study based on a 1976 accident in a plant near Seveso, Italy, that exposed the local population to TCDD. Increased cancer rates were found, and again, an increase in soft-tissue sarcoma.
So the pattern is this – everyone says “It may be carcinogenic,” but no one seems to feel that they can unequivocally say it IS carcinogenic. We call the stuff undeniably toxic, we see these elevated cancer numbers in Vietnam vets and some other populations, and we say it’s most definitely a carcinogen in animal studies… but it’s not like we can ethically run a dioxin study on human beings… so we’re left sifting through data, and trying to draw sound conclusions from that. In all fairness, no it’s not an easy task because of all the variables that introduces. But what we do know, is that we’ve got a bunch of ailing people, particularly in the US and in Vietnam where it’s even worse in some areas, and something obviously went very, very wrong.
Meanwhile, if you visit Monsanto’s corporate page on Agent Orange, the company says this:
“Research on Agent Orange has been conducted for decades and continues today. While a causal connection linking Agent Orange to chronic disease in humans has not been established, some governments have made the decision to provide certain medical benefits to veterans and their families even though there has not been a determination that an individual’s health problem was caused by Agent Orange.”
So maybe I’m missing something here, but we KNOW that dioxin was in Agent Orange, and we know that thousands of people were exposed to high levels of it, so for all intents and purposes, Monsanto’s statement is basically saying:
“Research on DIOXIN has been conducted for decades and continues today.”
“…a causal connection linking DIOXIN to chronic disease in humans has not been established…”
Which is really a bit of a stretch, especially in regards to soft tissue sarcoma, and considering all the other evidence. But I’ll tell you what, since the law protects government contractors in special circumstances, there’s just no fight left against Monsanto for Agent Orange, even if the EPA comes out and says TCDD is the most potent carcinogen on earth. It doesn’t matter, Monsanto’s still off the hook. And here’s a court statement that sums it up:
“The court concluded that the ‘uniquely federal interest’ of ‘getting the government’s work done’ requires that, under some circumstances, independent contractors be protected from tort liability associated with their performance of government procurement contracts.”
Translation – that’s a legal defense known as the Military Contractors Doctrine. So adding all that together with the rest of the evidence, we’ll answer that 2nd question – “Did dioxin cause Vietnam veterans harm?” – with a very solid “most likely”, and we’ll move on…
Who Knew About Dioxin?
Which brings us to the final loaded question here, “Did Monsanto know about the dioxin contamination and its dangers upfront?” We know their “official” take is essentially that there is no danger, but were there any red flags popping up indicating that dioxin existed in their 2,4,5-T, and that maybe more testing should’ve been done?
Well, they most certainly had an idea way back in 1965, the year Agent Orange first landed in Vietnam.
Because on March 19th of that year, Dow Chemical actually invited representatives of Monsanto and three other companies to Midland, MI to discuss ”problems of health” associated with findings of ”highly toxic impurities” in 2,4,5-T and related materials. (See Dioxin Makers Knew Hazards)
The meeting took place on March 24th and Dow discussed a recent chloracne outbreak and its 25 years of experience testing chemicals on rabbits’ ears. The meeting, according to one of the other company representatives attending, ”was obviously designed to help us solve this problem before outsiders confuse the issue and cause us no end of grief.”
Monsanto never attended that meeting, although they were informed of what took place, which included a discussion on whether or not the government should be informed of the findings.
Then there’s Gerson Smoger, a well-respected lawyer for some Vietnam veterans, and Gerson claims he has a copy of a letter which “proves Monsanto criticized Dow for wanting to reveal the secret. And the secret was kept for at least four years, the years when the spraying of Agent Orange reached a peak in Vietnam.”
And Gerson also said, in reference to both Dow Chemical and Monsanto, that “…contrary to what their executives said, they regularly tested the dioxin content of their products, but they never transmitted their results to the public health or military authorities.”
So we’ve got fingers pointed at the chemical companies saying they knew about the dioxin contamination from the start, they knew it was risky, and maybe they did… but it also begs the question, what did the US government really know then?
To Be Used on The Enemy
Here’s a few words from an Air Force officer and scientist named James Clary, who was instrumental in designing the spray tank that cargo planes used to dispense Agent Orange in Vietnam. This comes from a letter he wrote to then Senator Tom Daschle back in 1988:
“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. And, if we had, we would have expected our own government to give assistance to veterans so contaminated.” (Read more on James Clary)
And here’s one final story, that of Admiral E.R. Zumwalt, Jr., who served in Vietnam, as did his son, who subsequently died of cancer at the very young age of 42. After that, the Admiral did everything in his power to expose the dioxin issue, and here’s a report prepared by Admiral Zumwalt in 1990 that is a really good read, but is horrifically formatted. It’s still worth a read though if you can get through it!
OK we’ll wrap up Agent Orange right here, but understand this still lives on for Monsanto… other lawsuits lingered much later. Just over 2 years ago, in a January 2013 settlement in good old Nitro, WV, where Monsanto was dealing with dioxin problems for decades on end, the company agreed to pay up to $84 million for medical expenses and $9 million to clean up 4,500 homes. And that litigation began with a class-action case by plant workers back in the 1980s, that’s how long poor Nitro dealt with the situation…
So for Monsanto and Agent Orange, there were too many other players involved, including the US government, for it to be anywhere near as atrocious as their PCBs negligence was. But their steadfast denial of any health issues, the fact that they created by far the most contaminated Agent Orange, and the fact that they then manipulated scientific studies, which were peer-reviewed and helped seal the fate of the original Agent Orange plaintiffs… well… yeah, not exactly building trust after the PCBs debacle.
We’ll talk more about that over the next two days as I touch on DDT, the Agent Orange + Enlist Duo hysteria, and then reveal the first GMO TRUTH!