Herbicide: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

I’ve finally started reading a book by Timothy Lee Scott, Invasive Plant Medicine: The Ecological and Healing Abilities of Invasives (click on the image to go to the website) and it has provided further support and confirmation for a lot of the things I’ve been writing here as well as further provocative fuel for thought while I go about my business with conservationists and gardeners. I’ve just finished the chapters titled ‘Invasive Herbicidal Impacts’ and ‘The Economics of Weeds’. A passage in the latter confirms my earlier contention that ‘Biocidal poisons used to further the Green Revolution in the mid 20th century came directly from the re-tooled factories of World War Two’:

Nazi Germany pioneered chemical engineering for combating plants, pests, and people by developing highly poisonous organophosphate compounds used in agricultural pesticides and as chemical warfare nerve gases. In America after the two World Wars were over, there was a movement to find use for the millions of pounds of wasted ammunition and explosives that remained. Factories that once manufactured war machinery were waiting to be filled, soldiers needed jobs, and there were plenty of raw materials to use. The first widely used herbicides and pesticides were nothing but leftover weapons of war. Nitrogen- and phosphorous-based compounds accumulated in massive, stockpiled amounts during wartime, which then led to the practice of discarding them on agricultural fields as a synthetic fertilizer throughout America and, eventually, the world.

DuPont was the largest manufacturer of gunpowder during WWI and now is the parent company of the world’s largest seed company, Pioneer HiBred, and Monsanto saw a one-hundred-fold increase in profits by supplying chemicals to produce highly reactive explosives such as TNT. Dow Chemical and Monsanto have been the leading manufacturers of herbicides for decades, reaping huge profits from Agent Orange’s campaign against the Vietnamese jungles and with the Roundup family of herbicides for every dangerous [sic] plant imaginable. (pp.76-7, citing this article by Brian Tokar)

…while the story of ‘Agent Orange and the Rainbow Herbicides’ in the former is pretty horrific:

File:'Ranch Hand' run.jpg
(source: Wikipedia)

The use of herbicides for warfare was first brought to our attention in the Vietnam War, when rainbow herbicides were sprayed across territories to reveal hideouts, destroy agriculture, and poison the enemy. The barrels containing these agents that Dow Chemical Company and Monsanto, among others, manufactured had a coloured stripe painted on them to identify the contents:

Agent Orange, Agent Green, Agent Pink, Agent White, and Agent Purple

The most common was Agent Orange, an equal blend of two phenoxy herbicides (2, 4-D and 2, 4, 5-T). Between 1961 and 1971, about forty-six thousand tonnes of it was sprayed at intensified rates over 3.5 million acres of southern Vietnamese forests and cropland. Not only were ecosystems completely ravaged by this mass poisoning effort, but also millions of civilians and allied troops were caught in the crossfire. The toxin dioxin used in all of these poisons has been reported by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to cause a wide variety of illnesses that affect various bodily systems and is still present in our [sic] environment at high concentrations. Some known ailments that are compensated under VA benefits include type 2 diabetes, prostate cancer, respitory cancers, multiple myeloma, Hodgkins disease, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, soft-tissue sarcoma, chloracne, porphyries cutanea tarda, peripheral neuropathy, and spina bifida in the children of veterans. Since 1984, Dow Chemical Company has lost various class-action lawsuits regarding these poisonings of American, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, and South Korean veterans in Vietnam. All have won health care compensation for the unforseen hazards of their service. (p.69, citing this allmilitary forum post)

Of course the generations of Vietnamese victims have had no such luck, with lawsuits against Dow Chemical and Monsanto and subsequent appeals getting thrown out various US courts between 2004 and 2009. To get a deeper sense of this atrocity, read the Wikipedia article and associated links or, if you’ve got a strong stomach, type ‘agent orange effects’ into an image search engine.

I subscribe to the notion articulated by Hireesh Chandra of the Department of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology at Gandhi Medical College, who said, referring to the Bhopal disaster, that individuals or institutions “shouldn’t be permitted to make poison for which there is no antidote” (quoted in Jensen, Culture of Make Believe, p.285)

News photo

It seems Agent Orange is still poisoning people in Japan, where:

The U.S. Marine Corps buried a massive stockpile of Agent Orange at the Futenma air station in Okinawa, possibly poisoning the base’s former head of maintenance and potentially contaminating nearby residents and the ground beneath the base, The Japan Times recently learned from interviews with U.S. veterans.

The barrels were apparently abandoned in Okinawa at the end of the Vietnam War — when the U.S. government banned the dioxin-laden defoliant for health reasons — and were buried at the installation in the city of Ginowan after the Pentagon ignored requests to safely dispose of them, according to the veterans who served at the installation in the 1970s and 1980s.


In 1972, the U.S. removed its stockpiles of Agent Orange from South Vietnam to Johnston Island in the North Pacific where, after a five-year debate over how to dispose of them safely, they were eventually incinerated at sea in 1977.

Scientists researching the dangers of Agent Orange in South Vietnam have discovered that because its highly poisonous dioxin is not dissolved by rainwater, it can remain in the soil, poisoning people for decades. In southern Vietnam today, there are more than 20 dioxin hot spots at sites used by the U.S. military to store Agent Orange.

Where is the accountability for these motherfuckers? How can they get away with this? What incentive do they have to not commit the same crimes in the future?

I don’t expect an answer to these questions anytime soon.

In the meantime I have my work cut out trying to persuade my bosses of the insanity of torching gardens, driveways and even bodies of water with Glyphosate (Monsanto’s patented chemical in Roundup) to kill the plants they or their clients, in their definitely less-than-infinite wisdom, have decided don’t belong.

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10 Responses to “Herbicide: The Gift That Keeps On Giving”

  1. Ian M Says:

    See also this 2011 Toronto Star report which revealed that:

    Records from the 1950s, 60s and 70s show forestry workers, often students and junior rangers, spent weeks at a time as human markers holding red, helium-filled balloons on fishing lines while low-flying planes sprayed toxic herbicides including an infamous chemical mixture known as Agent Orange on the brush and the boys below.

    (The BBC report which linked to this said that ‘Canadian officials have acknowledged the country used Agent Orange to clear roadside brush as late as the 1980s.’)

    The intention?

    Nearly 20,000 kilometres away [from Vietnam] in Northern Ontario, toxic herbicides were employed to disable a different kind of enemy.

    The chemicals targeted what forestry reports described as “weed trees” — including birch, maple, poplar and shrubs — which stole sunlight and soil nutrients from young, profitable spruce species. The hormones in the defoliants caused the broad leaves on these weed trees to grow so quickly they starved to death.

    The rationale?

    Aerial spraying programs were considered a cheap, fast and effective way to alter the landscape of Ontario’s forests for maximum profit. Timber companies and the government worked together to increase the output of money-making trees like white and black spruce while culling nearly everything else that got in their way.

    The result (for humans – obviously we don’t care about the murdered ‘weed trees’)?

    The government records list the names of five supervisors who worked on spraying programs in Northern Ontario during the 1950s and 1960s. Four of the five have either been diagnosed with or died of cancer.


  2. christine Says:

    Yeah, it’s pretty embarassing to be Canadian as these revelations keep coming. To add to that, our so-called ‘national parks’ are a joke. Logging and mining? Come on in, just don’t do it close to the road where the tourists will see it. We’ve driven through those pine deserts that they planted, and there is nothing there. No birds. No roadkill beside the highways because nothing lives there. At. All.

    But Canada is a very big country and everyone lives in the cities, oblivious to the carnage. Canada is also a nation of ostriches, no one wants to know. Now that the Natives are complaining of the poisoned waterways the nation is rising up and saying – “why are you living out there in the middle of nowhere, anyway? Didn’t we tell you to assimilate??”

    Yes. It is insanity. There are voices of dissent of course, but the Harper government has new name for them – ecoterrorists. Mention David Suzuki (who I imagine will be knighted if Charles ever gets to the throne) and your average Canadian will roll their eyes. Dark days here, very dark.

    Meanwhile, spraying of lawns is now unfashionable, so there’s lots of dandelions and most people will tell you how ‘green’ their lifestyles are.

    Yeah, right.

  3. Ian M Says:

    Don’t worry, I’m not holding you accountable 🙂 Situation much the same here with lack of major restriction on extractive activities in nature reserves and a collective, albeit media-driven, refusal to talk about climate change in any serious way (ie: one that identifies capitalism/corporatism as the major culprit). And eco-terrorism? I think I showed you this before.

    Interesting about the lawn spraying. How did that come about? No such luck here. Seems to me like the most important thing that could happen in Canada is a nationalist movement to cut down on the export of natural resources, especially those that cause most destruction like the tar sands – most of which gets piped south of the border, if I understand correctly.

    Good luck with that!

  4. christine Says:

    What, are they still really spraying lawns in Britain? I’m not sure how it began here, but most municipalities have banned “cosmetic” use of herbicidal sprays. Golf courses are the exception of course. 🙂

    No, it’s all about the economy and energy security here, no hope of slowing down extraction and exports any time soon. If the US doesn’t want our dirty oil anymore that makes China our new best friend, didn’t you hear? Pipeline over the Rockies to the west coast and big mother oil tankers to Asia is next. Frying pan/fire. But now we’re getting off topic…

    I guess it was thoughts like these made me post that music video over on my blog a couple days ago.

    cheers C

  5. Ian M Says:

    Yup, still spraying. Lawn feed fertilisers mostly, but some moss- and weed-killers in the mix for sure. According to Wikipedia:

    Greater amounts of chemical fertilizer and pesticides are used per acre of lawn than on an equivalent acre of cultivated farmland. […] nearly 70,000,000 pounds (32,000,000 kg) of active pesticide ingredients are used on suburban lawns each year in the United States.

    Sounds like Canadians have taken some remarkably sane moves, and there’s lots of savvy analysis emerging from the crazy ideology of the lawn. We Brits invented it doncherknow:

    […] the English lawn was a symbol of status of the aristocracy and gentry; it showed that the owner could afford to keep land that was not being used for a building, or for food production.

    Also I note the presence of our friend 2,4-D, ‘restricted’ by many countries (not the US, Canada or the UK) but otherwise ‘the most widely used herbicide in the world’, original ingredient in Agent Orange and still occasionally contaminated with dioxins (which apparently caused the most damage in Vietnam). Hearteningly:

    The economic recession that began in 2008 has resulted in many communities worldwide to dig up their lawns and plant fruit and vegetable gardens. This has the potential to greatly change cultural values attached to the lawn, as they are increasingly viewed as environmentally and economically unviable in the modern context.

    The economics you describe sound nutty (I suppose that’s economics full stop). From what I understand, though, there’s only a brief window in which it will make financial sense to go after the tar sands. Read: ‘The Oil Junkie’s Last Fix’ part 1 and part 2. Although I suppose there are plenty of examples of empires attempting vast follies in their latter days, leading to appalling damages… Sounds like we’re in for a fun couple of decades!


    PS: I’m So Bored With The U.S.A. But what can I do? 😛

  6. Ian M Says:

    John Pilger chimes in:

    Arriving in a village in southern Vietnam, I caught sight of two children who bore witness to the longest war of the 20th century. Their terrible deformities were familiar. All along the Mekong River, where the forests were petrified and silent, small human mutations lived as best they could.

    Today, at the Tu Du paediatric hospital in Saigon, a former operating theatre is known as the “collection room” and, unofficially, as the “room of horrors”. It has shelves of large bottles containing grotesque foetuses. During its invasion of Vietnam, the United States sprayed a defoliant herbicide on vegetation and villages to deny “cover to the enemy”. This was Agent Orange, which contained dioxins, poisons of such power that they cause foetal death, miscarriage, chromosomal damage and cancer.

    In 1970, a US Senate report stated that “the US has dumped [on South Vietnam] a quantity of toxic chemical amounting to six pounds per head of population, including women and children”. The code name for this weapon of mass destruction, Operation Hades, was changed to the friendlier Operation Ranch Hand. An estimated 4.8 million of the victims of Agent Orange today are children.

    Hanging tough

    Len Aldis, secretary of the Britain-Vietnam Friendship Society, recently returned from Vietnam with a letter for the International Olympic Committee from the Vietnam Women’s Union. The president of the union, Nguyen Thi Thanh Hoa, described “the severe congenital deformities [caused by Agent Orange] from generation to generation”. She asked the IOC to reconsider its decision to accept sponsorship of the London Olympics from the Dow Chemical Corporation, which was one of the companies that manufactured the poison and has refused to compensate its victims.

    Aldis hand-delivered the letter to the office of Lord Coe, chairman of the London Organising Committee. He has had no reply. When Amnesty International pointed out that in 2001 Dow Chemical acquired Union Carbide, “the company responsible for the Bhopal gas leak [in India in 1984] which killed 7,000 to 10,000 people immediately and a further 15,000 in the following 20 years”, David Cameron described Dow as a “reputable company”. Cheers, then, as the television cameras pan across the £7m decorative wrap that sheathes the Olympic Stadium: the product of a ten-year “deal” between the IOC and such a reputable destroyer.

    History is buried with the dead and deformed of Vietnam and Bhopal. History is the new enemy. On 28 May, President Obama launched a campaign to falsify the history of the war in Vietnam. To Obama, there was no Agent Orange, no free-fire zones, no turkey shoots, no cover-ups of massacres, no rampant racism, no suicides (as many Americans took their own lives as died in the war), no defeat by a resistance army drawn from an impoverished society. It was, said Mr Hopey Changey, “one of the most extraordinary stories of bravery and integrity in the annals of [US] military history”.

    Seriously? Fuck that clown.

  7. Ian M Says:

    Some better-late-than-never progress for the Vietnamese:

    The U.S. has begun a landmark cleanup of Agent Orange in Vietnam.‘ Some insight into what it takes to detoxify dioxin some half a century later:

    Vietnam’s Ministry of Defense and the U.S. now plan to excavate 73,000 cubic meters (2.5 million cubic feet) of soil from the airport and heat it to a high temperature in storage tanks until the dioxin is removed. The project is expected to be completed in four years.

    Looks like this is what happened to the rest of the military stockpile:

    In 1972, the U.S. removed its stockpiles of Agent Orange from South Vietnam to Johnston Island in the North Pacific where, after a five-year debate over how to dispose of them safely, they were eventually incinerated at sea in 1977. (ibid.)

    Here’s a site with some photos of Johnston Island covered with leaking barrels and providing some info on the poisoning of their human caretakers. Yet to read anything about what this did to the wildlife on land or in the oceans (the wikipedia article touches on some of the ecological effects in Vietnam itself).

  8. More striking visuals « Frequently Found Growing On Disturbed Ground Says:

    […] 1947 advertisement / propaganda piece for 2,4-D herbicide (later used in Agent Orange as previously discussed), ‘Death to […]

  9. Cameron Says:


    I have a quick question about your blog, would you mind emailing me when you get a chance?



  10. Ian M Says:

    Long 2003 article in the Graun by Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy: ‘Spectre orange: Nearly 30 years after the Vietnam war, a chemical weapon used by US troops is still exacting a hideous toll on each new generation. The deeper you get into this story the more appalling the atrocity appears and the more utterly repugnant those who perpetrated it. A couple of paragraphs:

    It would take the intervention of the former commander of the US Navy in Vietnam, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, for the government finally to admit that it had been aware of the potential dangers of the chemicals used in Vietnam from the start of Ranch Hand. The admiral’s involvement stemmed from a deathbed pledge to his son, a patrol boat captain who contracted two forms of cancer that he believed had been caused by his exposure to Agent Orange. Every day during the war, Captain Elmo Zumwalt Jr had swum in a river from which he had also eaten fish, in an area that was regularly sprayed with the herbicide. Two years after his son’s death in 1988, Zumwalt used his leverage within the military establishment to compile a classified report, which he presented to the secretary of the department of veterans’ affairs and which contained data linking Agent Orange to 28 life-threatening conditions, including bone cancer, skin cancer, brain cancer – in fact, almost every cancer known to man – in addition to chronic skin disorders, birth defects, gastrointestinal diseases and neurological defects.

    Zumwalt also uncovered irrefutable evidence that the US military had dispensed “Agent Orange in concentrations six to 25 times the suggested rate” and that “4.2m US soldiers could have made transient or significant contact with the herbicides because of Operation Ranch Hand”. This speculative figure is twice the official estimate of US veterans who may have been contaminated with TCCD.

    Most damning and politically sensitive of all is a letter, obtained by Zumwalt, from Dr James Clary, a military scientist who designed the spray tanks for Ranch Hand. Writing in 1988 to a member of Congress investigating Agent Orange, Clary admitted: “When we initiated the herbicide programme in the 1960s, 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.”

    The Office of Genetic Counselling and Disabled Children (OGCDC) operates out of a room little bigger than a broom cupboard. Dr Viet Nhan and his 21 volunteers share their cramped quarters at Hue Medical College with cerebral spinal fluid shunt kits donated from Norfolk, Virginia; children’s clothes given by the Rotary Club of Osaka, Japan; second-hand computers scavenged from banks in Singapore.

    Vietnam’s chaotic and underfunded national health service cannot cope with the demands made upon it. The Vietnamese Red Cross has registered an estimated one million people disabled by Agent Orange, but has sufficient funds to help only one fifth of them, paying out an average of $5 (£3) a month. Dr Nhan established the free OGCDC, having studied the impact of Agent Orange as a student, to match Vietnamese families to foreign private financial donors. “It was only when I went out to the villages looking for case studies that I realised how many families were affected and how few could afford help,” he says. “I abandoned my research. Children need to run before they die.”

    My only criticism would be the failure to name any of the corporate actors who share responsibility alongside the US govt. & military. At one point they say: ‘the victims lost patience with their government and sued the defoliant manufacturers in an action that was finally settled out of court in 1984 for $180m (£115m).’ Oh did they indeed? Which manufacturers would that be, then? I have to go back to Wiki to find out that ‘Since at least 1978, several lawsuits have been filed against the companies which produced Agent Orange, among them Dow Chemical, Monsanto, and Diamond Shamrock.’

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