Has Kerry Helped Vietnam Sue Over Agent Orange?

When Howard Dean challenged Sen. John Kerry’s effectiveness as a senator last week, Sen. Kerry defended himself in part by noting that he helped pass Agent Orange (search) benefits for Vietnam veterans.

That’s true, but it was a good deed done for the wrong reason ― one that has opened the door for Vietnam to bilk billions of dollars from U.S taxpayers.

A lawsuit was filed on Jan. 30 by the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange (search) ― a front group formed by the government of Vietnam ― against 10 U.S. companies associated with the manufacture of Agent Orange, such as Dow Chemical and Monsanto (search). The lawsuit alleges that Agent Orange caused cancer, miscarriage and birth defects among three individuals.

The U.S. military sprayed millions of gallons of Agent Orange to defoliate forests in Vietnam from 1962 to 1971. The Agent Orange contained small amounts of dioxin, a substance that anti-chemical activists like to portray as being ultra-toxic.

Some Vietnam veterans who became ill after the war linked their illnesses to exposure to Agent Orange.

Armed with an unpublished report conducted by anti-chemical activists supposedly linking Agent Orange with veterans’ health problems, Sen. Kerry sponsored legislation in May 1990 to compensate Vietnam veterans for Agent Orange exposure, stating “It is not only appropriate but scientifically correct.”

But a fair reading of the still-ongoing scientific study of these veterans, including U.S. ground troops who operated in sprayed areas and the U.S. Air Force personnel responsible for spraying, actually indicates that there is no credible evidence that Agent Orange caused any health effects whatsoever.

Studies of the Air Force personnel ― the military personel with the highest exposures to the dioxin (search) in Agent Orange ― indicated they are as healthy as other Air Force personnel not involved in the spraying and are as healthy as other U.S. men in the general population, according to Dr. Michael Gough, a 10-year member of the U.S. government committee investigating the Agent Orange controversy.

Studies of the U.S. ground troops indicated they didn’t even have notable exposures to the dioxin in Agent Orange, added Gough.

At the time of the debate over Agent Orange compensation, however, the science wasn’t what was driving Sen, Kerry ― it was, rather, his rightful concern about how the country was treating its veterans.

“I find it highly disturbing that those people who went to fight the VC (Viet Cong) in Vietnam spend too much time fighting the VA (Department of Veterans Affairs) back here in this country,” Kerry proclaimed in 1988.

Certainly veterans should be well-taken care of by the nation they served, but the problem is that that Sen. Kerry and others made the basis of that compensation a supposed definite scientific link between Agent Orange and health effects ― something that didn’t and still doesn’t exist ― rather than a moral duty which does.

The lawsuit filed by Vietnam wasn’t available for review at the time I wrote this column, so I don’t know the precise details of their allegations. Suffice it to say for now, though, that based on what we know about Agent Orange and dioxin, the claims of related health effects aren’t likely to survive scientific scrutiny ― especially in federal court where scientific experts rather than politicians will decide the matter.

Not only has dioxin not been conclusively shown to cause health effects (other than a severe acne in the case of very high exposures), but the health effects alleged in the lawsuit are common and could have a myriad of causes, especially among poverty-stricken people in a third world country.

The Vietnamese lawsuit is unlikely to survive procedural motions to dismiss it. I doubt foreign nationals have the legal right to sue U.S. companies for health effects potentially related to the companies’ legally supplying the U.S. government with war materiel.

But despite scientific and legal hurdles, the controversy isn’t likely to go away either.

Hoping to grab an easy few billion dollars or so, the cash-strapped government of Vietnam claims that about three million of its citizens have been harmed by Agent Orange. Vietnam has enlisted the help of U.S. environmentalists ― notably dioxin hysteric Arnold Schecter (search) of the University of Texas ― who are eager to blame dioxin for virtually any and every health effect imaginable.

Thanks to Sen. Kerry and others who established by declaration the notion that Agent Orange caused health problems, it will be difficult to rationalize why Vietnam vets are compensated for Agent Orange exposure but Vietnamese civilians shouldn’t be.

Perhaps someone should put that question to Sen. Kerry.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-Defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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