Toxic Agents

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Toxic Agents Atomic Radiation ExposureAgent Orange Exposure
Toxic Agents: Atomic Radiation Exposure From 1945 to 1963, radioactive fallout from U.S. above‐ground nuclear weapons tests exposed over 200,000 military personnel, as well as a large but indeterminate number of civilian test workers and and so‐called downwinders, people living near the test sites. Most exposures were very low, however, and clear evidence of injury was lacking.

Three military groups received the bulk of relatively high exposures: uniformed members of the test organizations (1945–63); members of the task forces required for Pacific testing (1946–62); and participants in Desert Rock training exercises for a nuclear battlefield, held in Nevada (1951–57).

Military members of the test organizations and Pacific task forces observed the same safety standards and procedures as other test workers, except for the crews of aircraft sampling clouds for radioactivity. Assigned much higher exposure limits than others, they occasionally received much higher doses as well. Consistently, the most heavily exposed among those without special limits were radiation monitors, military and civilian, chiefly because their work often placed them where fallout was most likely. Statistical analysis of evidence, however, does not indicate that aircrews or monitors suffered long‐term deleterious effects.

When thermonuclear weapons testing began in 1952, the fallout problem intensified. The worst overexposure of civilians in test history, and the only documented instances of fallout‐caused injury, followed the 1954 Castle Bravo test at Bikini atoll in the Pacific. Unexpectedly heavy fallout hit two groups 100 miles from ground zero: the 23‐man crew of the Japanese fishing boat Lucky Dragon and 82 Marshallese on Rongelap in the Marshall Islands. One of the fishermen died six months later from complications of treatment, but the rest recovered without incident. Although all the Marshallese likewise recovered, thyroid problems attributed to fallout radioiodine surfaced two decades later among those who had been infants and children at the time. Heavy fallout from Bravo also dusted a twenty‐eight‐man U.S. Air Force weather unit on Rongerik and hundreds of other Marshallese on more distant atolls, none of whom displayed any symptoms of radiation injury.

The same absence of observable effects marked the very much lower doses associated with Desert Rock training exercises in Nevada. Expecting nuclear field training to be a onetime experience for any individual, the Pentagon negotiated special rules to enhance its realism. Despite somewhat higher limits than test workers, however, few troops approached, or exceeded, normal test standards. Only one subgroup at Desert Rock, officers who volunteered to entrench relatively close to ground zero for some tests, received some sizable doses.

In addition, there is no unambiguous evidence of long‐term radiation injury to participants in the Desert Rock exercises. The author of a widely publicized medical report claiming excess leukemia linked to the 1957 Smoky test (at the Nevada Test site) later corrected his initial findings. No other nuclear weapons test has shown any apparent linkage.

Evidence of injury to other exposed groups, test site workers and downwinders, is even less clear. The problem is that it is extremely difficult to tease out the possible effects of exposure to low‐level radiation from other causes of illness. At present, the issue remains unresolved within the medical community.


J. Newell Stannard , Radioactivity and Health: A History, 1988.
Barton C. Hacker , Elements of Controversy: The Atomic Energy Commission and Radiation Safety in Nuclear Weapons Testing, 1947–1974, 1994.

Barton C. Hacker

Toxic Agents: Agent Orange Exposure Agent Orange, the toxic plant killer named after the color‐coded stripe that was painted around the 55‐gallon barrels in which it was stored, is a combination of two commercial herbicides: 2‐4‐D (n‐buytl‐2,4‐dichlorophenoxacetate) and 2,4,5‐T (n‐butyl‐2,4,5‐trichlorophenoxyacetate). First developed by the U.S. Army as an instrument of chemical warfare at Fort Detrick, Maryland, Agent Orange was so successful in destroying broad‐leaf plants that Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara suggested further testing be done on jungle vegetation during the Vietnam War. In 1962, the Department of Defense commenced a program of systematically defoliating millions of acres of Vietnamese forests and croplands. By the time the program was called to a halt in 1971, herbicides had destroyed an estimated 4.5 million acres of countryside.

Agent Orange contains TCDD‐dioxin, a substance so toxic to animals and humans that Dr. Jacqueline Verrett of the Food and Drug Administration called it “100,000 times more potent than thalidomide as a cause of birth defects in some species.” Before he died of cancer in 1978 at the age of twenty‐eight, Vietnam veteran Paul Reutershan concluded that his terminal cancer could be traced to his extensive exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Reutershan founded Agent Orange Victims International, and began a $100 million damage claim against Dow Chemical and other Agent Orange manufacturers. Reutershan's claim became a much larger class action lawsuit in which many Vietnam veterans and their families attempted to force Dow Chemical, Monsanto, Uniroyal, Diamond Shamrock, and Hercules to concede that Agent Orange had injured thousands of veterans, and to assume financial responsibility for manufacturing and selling a hazardous product.

Plaintiffs in the Agent Orange class action suit asked for a ban on all advertising, promotion, distribution, marketing, and sale of contaminated herbicides; for chemical companies to reveal all they knew about the dangers of contaminated herbicides; and for a tax‐exempt fund to be set up to cover damages from exposure to herbicides.

In 1984, the Agent Orange class action suit was settled out of court for the sum of $180 million. A number of plaintiffs were outraged that the case was not heard in court. At “Fairness Hearings” held in five American cities to ascertain the plaintiffs' reactions to the out‐of‐court settlement, Vietnam veterans and their wives denounced their own lawyers and the agreement, and demanded that the case be heard before a jury of their peers. Federal judge Julius Weinstein refused the plaintiffs' appeals, arguing that the settlement was fair and just.

Five years later, a decision was reached on how the $180 million, ballooned by interest, would be distributed. The payment plan confirmed the fears expressed at the Fairness Hearings. A totally disabled Vietnam veteran would receive a maximum of $12,000, spread out over a period of ten years. Further, disabled veterans receiving these payments could become ineligible for food stamps, public assistance, and government pensions. A widow of a Vietnam veteran who died from exposure to Agent Orange would receive $3,700.

After years of stonewalling on the issue, the Veterans Administration agreed to compensate certain illnesses related to exposure to dioxin. Nevertheless, the legacy is a deep bitterness among those who fought in Southeast Asia, including Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, whose son died from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. The Agent Orange issue remains one of the great tragedies of American military history.
[See also Veterans: Vietnam War.]

Fred A. Wilcox