Agent Orange

A news item on the BBC this evening mentioned that the US was (at last) starting to clear up the terrible contamination of Vietnam caused by its use of millions of gallons of the defoliant ‘Agent Orange’ on Vietnam during the Vietnam war. The idea of fighting a war by attempting to starve the population seems rather to fly in the face of the Geneva Convention and all the ideas about not attacking civilians, and Agent Orange was designed to try to stop food production. But its effects were much worse, as the large-scale production of it by Dow and Monsanto produced a product that as well as the defoliant was contaminated with one of the most toxic chemical known to man, dioxin.

As Philip Jones Griffiths (1936-2008), arguably the photographer whose work as a whole did most to bring the reality of Vietnam home to the US and the West, particularly through his book ‘Vietnam Inc’, later wrote, “Dioxin acts like a hormone. It gets to the receptors in the cells of a developing foetus before the normal hormones and directs the cells to do crazy things. The end result has been tens of thousands of deformed children and an even greater number of miscarriages and stillbirths.” His work on the effects of Agent Orange shows the spraying and its effects both on the land and on the people. The spraying ended in 1975, and the effects are still felt in Vietnam. Although there has been some compensation for US soldiers who were effected by it, the US has never compensated the people of Vietnam, and the programme to de-contaminate some small areas is the first direct US involvement in cleaning up the terrible legacy they left in Vietnam.

You can see more of the work of Jones Griffiths on his Magnum pages, and find out more about the book Vietnam Inc on Musariam.

Vietnam is not of course the only place that Dow has been linked with contamination by dioxins. They inherited the Bhopal disaster when they merged with Union Carbide, and residents near their home in Michigan have also ” filed suit against Dow for health risks and loss of property value due to dioxin contamination.” There are also other toxic chemicals which have blotted the record of this Olympic sponsor,  including of course napalm used in vast quantities in Vietnam, DDT and asbestos. But according to the US site ‘Solidarity‘, Dow plants account for 97% of all water and 96% of all soil emissions of dioxin in Michigan, with levels on their sites up to around 100 times the safe limit, and in playgrounds and schools off the site up to around 9 times the normally accepted safe limit.

What was in a way surprising, at a time when the country is gripped by Olympic fever, was that there was no mention of the obvious Olympic link in the BBC report. Dow are of course one of the major Olympic sponsors, although the publicity around the company’s terrible environmental record meant that not even LOCOG could go ahead with them putting a wrap extolling their virtues around the stadium – it would have resulted in an avalanche of negative publicity.

© 2012, Peter Marshall
The ‘naked’ stadium with artificial landscape – but I’d advise soil samples and a Geiger counter before eating anything grown here.

There is perhaps a certain logic in one of the world’s major polluters being a sponsor of the games. Much of the derelict land, as well as that from which working industries were displaced for the Olympic site was heavily contaminated. Some areas, such as much of the cycle circuit, had been dumping grounds for all sorts of toxic waste, and had been capped to contain this material, and there were also disused sites of various rather nasty industries that had never been properly dealt with. In the vast terra-forming exercise of destroying the existing landscape to build the Olympic facilities, there wasn’t time to properly decontaminate much of the site, and almost certainly there are parts of the area that are now hazardous.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.