Australia's role in Agent Orange crime

Fifty years ago this month, the US began its spraying of Agent Orange and similar chemicals containing large amounts of deadly cancer-causing dioxin over southern Vietnam. This murderous campaign lasted 10 years, poisoning uncounted Vietnamese civilians and liberation fighters and members of the US military and its allies. Dioxin also attacks sperm or egg DNA, deforming victims’ children and grandchildren. Parts of southern Vietnam are still heavily contaminated with dioxin that continues to claim new victims. The US responsibility for devising and ordering this crime is well known. Less known is Australia’s role in testing, producing and spraying Agent Orange.

Tested in Australia

After 10 years of scouring the Australian War Memorial museum archives, one of the leading experts on the effects of chemicals on Australian veterans of the US war on Vietnam, Jean Williams, found reports of secret testing of Agent Orange. Williams discovered that Australian military scientists had sprayed Agent Orange on rainforest in the catchment area of the town of Innisfail in far north Queensland between 1964 and 1966.

On May 18, 2008, Williams told Fairfax media that one of the files on the testing was marked “considered sensitive” and showed that the chemicals 2,4-D, Diquat, Tordon and dimethylsulphoxide had been sprayed on the rainforest. “It was considered sensitive because they were mixing together all the bad chemicals, which just made them worse”, she said. “Those chemicals stay in the soil for years, and every time there is a storm they are stirred up and go into the water supply.”

Williams’ revelations were backed by former soldier Ted Bosworth, who drove the scientists to the site in the 1960s. “There was an English scientist and an Australian. I heard they both later died of cancer. They sprayed the trees by hand and then in the next couple of weeks I took them back up and they put ladders up against the trees and took photos of them as the foliage was dying”, he said. “They called it some other funny name - I hadn’t heard of Agent Orange then.”  Williams also said that a file that could indicate much wider testing in a project called Operation Desert had gone missing from the archives. It was marked “too disturbing to ever be released”.

To this day, the half-acre site at Gregory Falls remains deforested despite thick jungle surrounding it. Innisfail Returned and Services League president Reg Hamann told the Herald Sun on May 28, 2008, of the terrible effects he suffers from Agent Orange he was exposed to during the war. “A lot of my unit have died of cancer. I’ve got cancer of the oesophagus and stomach. I have to sleep on a special bed that raises me 17 degrees or everything in my stomach rises up. I’ve had a subdural haemorrhage, a heart attack and a quadruple bypass. It passes on to the next generation. My son was born with a deformed lung. My daughter has got the same skin problem I have from Agent Orange. Now my grandkids are going to get it.”

Unknown to Hamann at the time, while he was being poisoned in Vietnam, the army was poisoning what would become his hometown. “I believe it must have something to do with the high cancer rates in Innisfail. The amount of young people in this area who die of leukaemia and similar cancers to what I got from Agent Orange is scary. The authorities are scared of digging into it as there would be lots of lawsuits. The sad part is the number of kids who get cancer here. It’s been that way at least since I came here in 1970. That means it can’t be chemical spraying on the bananas as they only came here 15 years ago.”

Queensland Health claimed in 2008 that Innisfail did not have an above average cancer rate, based on figures from 1991 to 2005. Locals counter this saying that in 2007 about one person aged in their 40s was dying from cancer every month, a high number for a small town. The age of these cancer victims would also make them babies at the time of the testing. When the story of the testing hit the media in 2008, the Queensland and federal governments both promised investigations. To date no findings have been released.

Made in Australia

Between 1961 and 1971 the US and its allies sprayed and dumped around 80 million litres of Agent Orange and related chemicals on Vietnam. Demand for this poison was high, and Australian chemical manufacturers helped meet the demand and got their share of the profits.

Union Carbide (now owned by Dow Chemical) produced Agent Orange at Homebush in Sydney, leaving a terrible legacy. The factory is gone now, but in June 1997 Greenpeace investigations revealed an orphaned stockpile of thirty-six 200-litre drums and fifteen 50-litre drums of waste highly contaminated with dioxin next to Homebush Bay and the site of the 2000 Olympic Games. Greenpeace sampling of fish from Homebush Bay found high levels of dioxin in the food chain. Two sea mullet were found to have levels of the most toxic form of dioxin, 2378 TCDD, 10-15 times higher than US and Canadian standards for concentrations in edible fish.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on October 30, 2010, that carcinogenic chemicals from the former Union Carbide factory are spreading throughout Sydney Harbour. According to government authorities, the contamination covers an area too large to be remediated, and the only answer is to wait until sediments cover the contaminated layer, so the poison cannot be absorbed by fish and small invertebrates. The high levels of dioxins in areas where fish feed mean that the official warnings not to eat fish caught west of the Harbour Bridge, and to eat only 150 grams a month of fish caught east of the bridge, will likely remain for decades.

Agent Orange was also produced in the outer Perth suburb of  Kwinana by  Chemical Industries Kwinana. The National Toxics Network noted in 2009 that quality control at the Perth factory was often poor, and “bad batches” were disposed of in pits on site and from time to time were burned. The open burning of these chemicals would have added to dioxin contamination. State government agencies have identified a plume of dioxin contamination beneath the site that has migrated to other nearby industrial sites.

The Nine MSN website reported on December 12, 2008, that Queensland’s Environmental Protection Agency had revealed the presence of dioxin in soil at an industrial site at Pinkenba, on the banks of a drain leading into the Brisbane River. Again the site was once a chemical factory that made Agent Orange in the 1960s and ‘70s. Dow Chemical, a global producer of Agent Orange, is currently cleaning up dioxin contamination on some of its sites in Victoria.

Sprayed by Australians

The Australian government and the military leadership during the war were directly involved in the poisoning of Vietnam’s people and environment. They ordered the widespread spraying of Agent Orange by Australian troops in Phuoc Tuy province, particularly around the Australian base at Nui Dat.

Royal Australian Air Force helicopters from No. 9 Squadron had spray booms attached for aerial spraying. Australian army trucks with spray rigs carried 300 gallon (about 1135 litres) tanks of Agent Orange. Soldiers were also assigned to spray by hand. Immediately the hand-spraying teams manifested medical problems including the breakdown of mucus membranes, ulceration of lips, profuse nosebleeding and severe conjunctivitis. So what did the army do?  Instead of stopping the spraying, it rotated the job through different units at the base.

There is also strong evidence that the Australian military brass knew from the start at least some of the long-term effects of Agent Orange. In an affidavit filed on May 1, 1980, Lt. Craig Steele (a hygiene officer in Vietnam) stated: “I had in my possession written guidelines on Agents Orange, Blue, and Hyvar. These guidelines carried the explicit warnings in bold print that the misuse of these chemicals may result in sterility and/or congenital abnormalities in humans.” These guidelines were in place from day one.

August 10 marks 50 years since Agent Orange was first sprayed by US forces in Vietnam. For the Vietnamese it will be a day of remembrance for those killed by Agent Orange as well as a day of action, rallying for the millions still suffering in Vietnam today. In Australia we can help these victims and our fellow workers in Vietnam by demanding that the Australian government take its share of responsibility for this war crime along with the US government and the  chemical companies that profited from it.