Professionalism/Arthur Galston and Agent Orange

Agent Orange Being Sprayed Over Vietnamese Forests

Arthur GalstonEdit

Research and Ethical BackgroundsEdit

Arthur Galston is a biologist who, among other accolades, is responsible for the research that led to the development of Agent Orange. He had a long history of working for the military and his first major research project involved working with biologists during World War II to develop a rubber substitute from a small Mexican shrub called guayule[1]. Once it was discovered that synthetic rubber could be manufactured in a more cost-effective procedure, Galston’s rubber research became obsolete and he was drafted into the Navy.

After the war, Galston came to the conclusion that science was neither inherently good or bad and that the pursuit of knowledge from a purely academic perspective was a higher calling[2]. As the American political climate began to shift to an increasingly anti-Communist stance, many professors and academics were required to sign a contract stating that they were not communist sympathizers. Galston refused to sign the contract and supported other professors who did not do so, despite the fact that he did not have communist beliefs. He believed firmly that in an academic setting, the pursuit of knowledge should overcome any cultural or political barriers. Galston recalls one conversation with a colleague in which he was told “You know, Art, you’ve got to do what your conscience tells you to. But I want you to know this isn’t going to do your career any good.” [Galston] said, “I know, but this is what I have to do.” So he smiled and shook my hand and said, “Do what you have to do.”[3].

Development of Agent OrangeEdit

In 1943, Galston began a research project that attempted to discover how certain chemicals effected the rate of plant growth in soybeans funded by the United States military as his PhD dissertation. The two chemicals 2, 4-dichorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T), were known to be able to regulate the amount of the plant hormone auxin that was found in the plants, and the American military wanted to know the potential effect that this had on plant growth. Galston studied a chemical with similar properties, 2,3,5-Triiodobenzoic Acid, (TIBA), and found that exposure to this chemical allowed the plants to create auxin earlier in development. This led to a greater rate of plant growth when the soybeans were exposed to small dosages of the chemical. In larger dosages, however, the cell walls between the plant stem and the plant leaves would degrade, resulting in leaves shriveling up or falling off of the stem. This ability for the chemicals to remove leaves from plants and defoliate potentially large areas was useful information for the Army, especially should they ever need to fight in dense jungle areas.

Agent Orange UseEdit

Map Showing Areas Affected by Agent Orange Use

Inspired by the British use of Agent Orange in Malaysia during the 1950s, the US decided to use Agent Orange, as well as similar chemicals Agent Blue, White, Pink and others, to remove dense forests and undergrowth. Operation Ranch Hand as it was called, originally name Operation Hades, had multiple objectives. In addition to removing dense forest growth around bases and along major roads to improve transportation, the operation sought to spray the food crops of the Vietcong Communists, destroying the crops to starve them or force them to relocate to U.S. and South Vietnamese controlled areas. Later missions were aimed to defoliate the jungles where the Vietcong hid[4].

Agent Orange constituted approximately two thirds of chemical substances used, about 12-13 million gallons in total. 95% of this was dispersed using C-123 cargo planes, with the other 5% dispersed by hand and truck along roads and around US military bases. This mixture was used at 20 times the normal concentration used for traditional agriculture. From 1962 to 1971 almost 24% of Southern Vietnam was sprayed with chemicals, resulting in 5 million acres of destroyed mangrove forests and jungles, as well as 500,000 acres of destroyed crops, an area approximately equivalent to Massachusetts. Some areas were sprayed as many as four times even though the first pass often eradicated much of the foliage. Additionally, an estimated 3181 villages were sprayed directly, and US troops themselves were exposed to significant amounts of the substance due to usage and storage around bases. Soldiers even used the empty barrels for bathing, food storage, and even barbeque pits. [5][6]

Ecological impactEdit

Agent Orange was sprayed mostly by aircraft, but boats and military personnel were common users too. The Mekong Delta, the agricultural heartland of Vietnam, was one of the most heavily sprayed regions. Large areas of countryside that lost vegetation, mostly in the hills of Quang Tri Province, were reduced to scrub brush. Agent Orange and other defoliates were absorbed into the soil and reduced its ability to hold nutrients and grow food for local populations.

Farm lands weren’t the only targeted areas though. Large forest areas that were thought to be used as cover were reduced significantly. The use of airborne chemicals had a severe impact on the mangrove forest ecosystem, home to hundreds of endangered species. The reduction of almost half of the country’s mangroves had much wider ramifications for the country. Vietnam is a country frequently exposed to typhoons and tsunamis. Mangrove tree roots naturally hold soil in place and trap nutrients to allow for recovery after these large events. With these natural barriers gone, human settlements and forests are equally impacted by potential flooding, droughts, loss of nutrients in the soil, and landslides.[7]

The use of Agent Orange appears to have taken a major toll on the environment; current estimates say that the forests will never fully recover. This brings to light the gravity of the statements from some members of the Operation Ranch Hand who had ironically adopted the phrase, “Only you can prevent forests.” [8].

Health EffectsEdit

As many as four million Vietnamese people were exposed to Agent Orange, many of which were the children of those exposed during the Vietnam War. The Vietnam Red Cross compiled a list of diseases associated with Agent Orange: peripheral neuropathy, chloracne, type 2 diabetes, hepatoma, Hodgkin’s disease, lipid metabolism, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, multiple myeloma, porphyria cutanea tarda (skin condition caused by a liver enzyme deficiency), prostate cancer, reproductive abnormalities, respiratory cancers, sarcoma, and spina bifida[4].

During the 1960s, this directly killed or injured 400,000 people and contributed to 500,000 birth defects[8]. Throughout the spraying of Agent Orange, dioxin seeped into the country’s water supply and soil, entering the food chain and accumulating in people’s fat tissues, leading to an epidemic in birth complications[4]. Women had a higher than normal rate of miscarriages and premature births, and two-thirds of the children born to these women had congenital malformations or developed disabilities within their first year of life[9].

The Vietnamese government says up to three million people as of 2007 suffer from birth defects or other health problems related to the dioxin. Thirty years after the spraying, soil tests found dioxin levels that were 300 to 400 times higher than internationally accepted levels [10].

Socio-Political impactEdit

During the WarEdit

Opposition to Agent Orange and similar chemicals first gained traction in 1967, the year after usage spiked in Vietnam. Arthur Galston had taken note of the environmental effects of the chemical in South Vietnam and began a long term campaign against the military’s use of Agent Orange. This began with his participation in a meeting with the American Association of Plant Physiology where they condemned use of the chemical[1]. After review, the Federation of American Scientists sent a petition to the White House requesting the end of chemical deforestation which included the signatures of 5000 notable figures within the scientific community and 129 Nobel Laureates. With help from multiple studies the full effects of these chemicals were fully understood by 1969.[11]

Initially, the US and Vietnamese governments circulated propaganda denying claims that the chemical agents had any negative effects on people, with local Vietnamese cartoons showing people applying the chemicals to their skin and walking through affected areas without consequence.[7] There is evidence that the companies producing the chemicals were aware of some of the maleffects of these chemicals and made the decision to ignore it. In house memos noted that an alternative, safer chemical could be manufactured for a slight reduction in profit, but chemical companies opted for maximum returns.[12] Eventually though, under pressure from advocacy groups, the President Nixon declared that the US government restrict its use of chemical defoliants in April 1970, and by January 1971 had all chemical defoliants removed from Vietnam. These were taken to Johnson Atoll by September 1971 where they were incinerated in September 1977.[11]

Post WarEdit

In the decades following the war, Galston’s research led to a number of class action lawsuits being filed by both veterans and Vietnamese victims against the US government, as well as against a number of other manufacturing and distribution companies and organizations. The first of these came in 1984, when a five year lawsuit brought against chemical companies by a group of Vietnam veterans ended with a $180 million dollar settlement.[13] In 1991, President H.W. Bush signed the Agent Orange Act which acknowledged the link between Agent Orange dioxins and certain diseases prevalent among Vietnam veterans such as Hodgkin’s disease, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and others. Notably, this provided benefits and resources for veterans only, not to Vietnamese citizens.[14] In 2004, a group of Vietnamese citizens filed a class-action lawsuit worth billions of dollars against more than 30 chemical companies, including the same ones that settled with U.S. veterans in 1984. In March 2005, a federal judge dismissed the suit, and another U.S. court rejected a final appeal in 2008.[11] Meanwhile, another class action case for veterans won millions of dollars in relief in 2012, and the U.S. government recently allocated more than $13 billion to fund expanded Agent Orange-related health services in America.[15] Only in the last few years has the US provided any sort of aid to the Vietnam, setting up operations around certain old military bases and airfields to attempt to render the chemicals harmless through superheating the soil.[16]

Today, it is difficult to find individuals or organizations beyond Arthur Galston who take direct responsibility for the development and use of Agent Orange. Companies that produced the chemical refuse to recognize their part in the manufacturing and distributing the chemical to the military. Monsanto’s official statement is that “a causal connection linking Agent Orange to chronic disease in humans has not been established” and that United States law protects them as a wartime contractor from repercussions.[17] Dow similarly denies that there has been sufficient evidence that links Agent Orange to health problems in veterans and they maintain that reparations, cleanup of the chemical, and any potential health problems that may exist is “a matter of resolution by and among the governments of the United States, Vietnam, and the allied forces.”[18]

  1. a b "An Accidental Plant Biologist". The American Society of Plant Biologists. March 2002. 
  2. "Science and Social Responsibility: A Case History". Yale University. June 1972. 
  3. Cohen, Shirley (2004). "Interview with Arthur W. Galston". 
  4. a b c King, Pamela (October 13, 2010). "The use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War and its effects on the Vietnamese People". 
  5. "What is Agent Orange?". The Aspen Institute. 
  6. "Agent Orange". 2011. 
  7. a b "Agent Orange, exposed: How U.S. chemical warfare in Vietnam unleashed a slow-moving disaster". The Conversation. October 3, 2017. 
  8. a b Dreyfuss, Robert (January 2000). "Apocalypse Still". Mother Jones. 
  9. Tuyet, Le Thi Nham & A. Johansson (November 1, 2001). "Impact of chemical warfare with Agent Orange on women’s reproductive lives in Vietnam: A pilot study.". Reproductive Health Matters, Volume 9, Issue 18. 
  10. Stocking, Ben (June 14, 2007). "Agent Orange Still Haunts Vietnam, US". The Washington Post. 
  11. a b c "America’s Most Lethal Secret Agent". Agent Orange Record. 2010. 
  12. Nguyen, Viet Thanh and Richard Hughes (September 15, 2017). "The Forgotten Victims of Agent Orange". The New York Times. 
  13. Blumenthal, Ralph (May 8, 1984). "Veterans Accept $180 Million Pact on Agent Orange". The New York Times. 
  14. Montgomery, G. V. (February 6, 1991). "Agent Orange Act of 1991". 
  15. Thai, Hang (October 3, 2017). "Agent Orange, exposed: How U.S. chemical warfare in Vietnam unleashed a slow-moving disaster". The Conversation. 
  16. Thai, Hang (May 11, 2014). "Agent Orange’s Long Legacy, for Vietnam and Veterans". The New York Times. 
  17. "Agent Orange: Background on Monsanto's Involvement". Monsanto. April 7, 2017. 
  18. "Agent Orange: Background on Monsanto's Involvement". Dow. August 23, 2012.