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Chemical weapons kill enemies — and us

by Cesar Chelala

The findings of a new report from the U.S. Air Force of a “significant and potentially meaningful” relationship between diabetes and bloodstream levels of the chemical dioxin add new evidence on the dangers of the use of chemical substances in warfare. They demonstrate once more that the harmful effects not only affect military and civilian target populations, but also those who have used the chemical compound with military purposes. The results of this study should convince even the most militant advocates of chemical warfare of the folly of its practice.

Dioxin, or TCDD, is one of a family of compounds that are contaminants of Agent Orange, a herbicide developed for the military, which was extensively used in Vietnam in the early 1960s, particularly at the height of the war in 1967-68. Its use was discontinued in 1971. It was found that the Agent Orange used in Vietnam was highly contaminated with dioxin. Prior to its use in Vietnam, Agent Orange was tested in the United States in Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, Camp Drum in New York, and Fort Detrick, Maryland.

Dioxin is not found in nature; is a by-product of the chemical manufacturing process. It has caused a variety of diseases in animals in laboratory tests, many of them fatal.

Agent Orange (the name comes from the orange band used to mark the drums in which it was stored) was very efective against broad-leaf foliage, such as that found in Southeast Asia. It was used to deny cover to the enemy in dense terrain by defoliating trees and shrubbery. It is estimated that 72.2 million liters of Agent Orange was used in Vietnam during the war, in what was called Operation Ranch Hand.

The just-released study found that servicemen with high dioxin levels were more likely to develop diabetes than those with low levels of contamination. The study also indicates that the severity of adult diabetes increased in parallel to the increase in dioxin levels in the body. The rates of illness were compared between 1,000 veterans who had been exposed to Agent Orange and 1,300 other air force veterans who had also served in the war but who had not been in contact with that chemical substance. Airmen were exposed to the chemical while doing maintenance on the aircraft and during the spraying flights.

According to the study, to be completed in 2006, there were 47 percent more cases of diabetes among those with high levels of dioxin in the blood. Diabetes, however, is not among nine other diseases — including Hodgkin’s disease and respiratory cancers — that have been listed as probably linked to exposure with Agent Orange. Other diseases “presumptively” linked to dioxin include lung and prostate cancer.

This just-released study raises, once more, important practical and ethical questions. From a practical point of view, there is the danger of subjecting a country’s own military personnel to serious health consequences when using such a dangerous substance. From the ethical point of view, we must consider the same dire consequences on the health of civilian populations of the country against which war is being waged.

If the controversy on the practice of chemical warfare needed one more argument against it, this study has certainly provided that.