February 1984 - VOLUME 5 - NUMBER 2
A Trail of Poison
by Deborah Smith
Between 1962 and 1971, more than 11 million gallons of Agent Orange, a highly toxic herbicide manufactured by the Dow Chemical Company, were sprayed by U.S. military planes over Vietnam. The operation, known under the code name "Ranch Hand," was designed to destroy enemy crops and camouflage by defoliating the Vietnamese jungle.
The results were horrifying. Dioxin, a component of Agent Orange, caused serious and long-lasting environmental damage in Vietnam, and has had severe human consequences both in Southeast Asia and the U.S.
The Secret Agent is an outstanding documentary that chronicles the fierce legal battles for financial compensation waged by Vietnam veterans exposed to the chemical. Made over a period of five years by filmmakers Jacki Ochs and Daniel Keller, the film focuses on the effects of dioxin, the political context in which Agent Orange was developed by Dow and the U.S. Department of Defense, and the long struggle of Vietnam veterans for justice from the government that sent them to Southeast Asia.
In 1979, attorney Victor J. Yannocone, on behalf of some 20,000 veterans, filed a class action suit against Dow and six smaller chemical companies. The suit charged the companies with withholding evidence during the 1960s that Agent Orange contained dioxin, and that dioxin was dangerously toxic, caused skin disfigurement, and could potentially cause cancer and genetic disorders.
Underlying the film's convincing documentation of dioxin's effects and its subsequent cover-up, is an exploration of the implicit logic of the corporate system. It is a logic which can rationalize birth defects, cancer, disfigurement, and death, not by absolving itself of moral responsibility, but by redefining responsibility in terms of dividends to stockholders. It is because of this logic that Dow, despite evidence that it lied about its knowledge of dioxin, has acknowledged in a formal letter to the filmmakers, the "fair presentation" of the company's views. According to its own logic, Dow really did not do anything wrong.
The film opens with a series of personal testimonies by victims of Agent Orange. We meet Mrs. Maureen Ryan, whose husband Michael served in areas of Vietnam contaminated by Agent Orange. Her 12-year-old daughter, Kerry, was born with 23 birth defects. Michael Ryan also exhibited symptoms consistent with dioxin poisoning.
The testimonies are intercut with segments from the 1979 Congressional hearings, where Veteran Administration (VA) officials and Dow apologists disclaim responsibility by placing the burden of proof on the victims themselves. A VA chief administrator denies that findings on mice who contracted cancer following dioxin injections have any bearing on the high percentage of cancer among veterans who worked with dioxin producing agents. Another VA official denies the validity of dioxin studies because they were published in German! A Dow representative says the problem is that the veterans "waited 10 years" before asking for compensation. Apparently the fact that many of the dioxin-related symptoms did not, or could not (as in the case of chromosome damage), manifest themselves until so many years later, did not occur to the executive.
The debate about dioxin did not, however, begin in the 1979 hearing room. The filmmakers present evidence that Dow knew of the lingering health problems caused by dioxin as early as 1962 yet they never published their discovery. Nor did they inform their biggest client, the Department of Defense. It was not until 1970, following publicized independent studies by the National Institute of Health linking 2, 4, 5-T, the family of herbicides containing dioxin, with cancer, that the Pentagon ordered the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam suspended.
The filmmakers also show us that Agent Orange is not only a veteran's issue. While it was used as a weapon of war in Vietnam, herbicides of similar chemical composition were widely used in the United States. As veteran Michael Ryan ominously warns: "They sprayed millions and millions of pounds of this one chemical all over the U.S., on our rangeland. .. the cows ate the grass. When you order a hamburger... keep it in mind."
The film also takes us to Times Beach, Missouri, where a dioxin contaminated oil spill led to the evacuation of the town; to Seveso, Italy in the mid-1970s where animals died and children's faces became disfigured with chloracne following a dioxin spill; and to a Monsanto chemical plant in the 1960s where workers contaminated by dioxin were similarly stricken.
In live interviews, Dow representatives paint a different picture. Officials such as spokesman Don Fraser calls 2,4,5-T Dow's safest and most studied herbicide. He warns that there is no guarantee that a new product will be "more safe."
The release of Secret Agent coincides with new developments in the class action suit brought by stricken Vietnam veterans and their families against seven chemical companies in January of 1979.
A newly appointed judge has changed the emphasis of the case away from determination of relative responsibility between the companies and the government to one of strict product liability. For Judge B. Weinstein, who took over the case in October of 1983, the chemical companies are liable for the effects of dioxin, whether or not they knew about them at the time of its manufacture and sale to the United States government. According to Weinstein, the courts should consider not only what companies knew, but what they should have known. Thus, the companies can no longer pass the buck to the government by claiming they were only following orders.
The chemical companies named in the suit are: Dow Chemical Co., Monsanto Co., Diamond Shamrock Corp., Uniroyal Inc., and, since Judge Weinstein took over, Hercules, and Thompson Chemical Co. A trial date is set for May 7, 1984.
In a related development, Dow Chemical announced in October 1983 that it had stopped selling 2,4,5-T, the dioxincontaining substance. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned certain uses of 2,4,5-T in 1979, and was negotiating with Dow and other manufacturers over the remaining uses of the chemical. According to a company spokesperson, Dow decided to remove 2, 4,5-T from the U.S. market altogether after the recent events in Missouri and Italy led to public outcry over dioxin contamination.
Distributed by First Run Features, P.O. Box 686, Cooper Station, New York 10276 (2l2) 673-6881. Rental $100; sale $850.
Deborah Smith regularly reviews films for Multinational Monitor.