The chemical components of Agent Orange, the phenoxy herbicides 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, were made by 37 U.S. chemical companies, beginning in the late 1940s. Prior to and during the U.S. war in Vietnaam, these herbicides were used in industrial agriculture domestically. They were also sprayed along railroads and power lines, and more, to control undergrowth in American forests. European nations, New Zealand and other countries also manufactured 2,4,5-T for their own agricultural uses.
It is at these manufacturing sites, where herbicides were produced and where industrial accidents occurred, that chemical workers are considered the first victims of agent orange and other toxic herbicides.
The Industrial Tragedy of Agent Orange
A chemical company in Germany discovered that Dioxin was created during the accelerated manufacturing of 2,4,5-T if the chemical reaction occurred at too high a temperature. The German company informed U.S. manufacturers of 2,4,5-T about this contaminating substance, what they could do to reduce it and to eliminate the problem of Chloracne among their workers. The chemical companies that produced the 2,4,5-T component of Agent Orange were aware since the 1940s that exposure to the herbicides could cause a severe skin condition called Chloracne.
In 1965, Dow Chemical also warned the other manufacturers of the Dioxin contamination in 2,4,5-T and suggested ways in which the Dioxin could be reduced by either lowering the temperature of the production of the herbicide or putting it through a filtration process. Dow called TCDD the “most toxic compound they have ever experienced.” Most companies did not make efforts to reduce the Dioxin contamination in their 2,4,5-T, nor did they warn the U.S. military about the Dioxin contamination.
There were several industrial accidents at the chemical plants that produced 2,4,5-T that exposed workers to high levels of Dioxin. The most serious of these accidents occurred in 1976 in Seveso, Italy, when a plant producing 2,4,5-T accidentally released a plume of smoke with an estimated 30-to-60 pounds of Dioxin over seven square miles potentially impacting a population of over 40,000 people. Those closest to the plant were evacuated and others were told to limit consumption of food that may have been contaminated. The exposed population of Seveso has been studied extensively ever since.
Many of the former manufacturing sites where Dioxin-contaminated 2,4,5-T was manufactured are now designated EPA Superfund sites in various stages of containment, clean-up and remediation. For decades now, local communities near these sites have been battling the chemical companies, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the issue of Dioxin contamination.