Vietnamese Delegation in U.S. to Sue Chemical Companies for Ongoing Effects of Agent Orange

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U.S. warplanes dumped about 18 million gallons of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. The Vietnamese government says this has left more than three million people disabled. We speak with two Vietnamese Agent Orange victims and their lawyers about how the toxin has affected their lives and why they’re suing over three dozen U.S. chemical companies who manufactured it. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush is meeting with Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet in Washington, D.C., today. It’s the first visit by a Vietnamese president to the White House since the Vietnam War. So far, President Triet’s trip has focused largely on trade and human rights, but he is expected to bring up an issue today that still lingers from the war: the U.S. military’s use of Agent Orange.

U.S. warplanes dumped about 18 million gallons of the poisonous dioxin during the Vietnam War. The Vietnamese government says this has left more than three million people disabled. Earlier this week, a delegation of Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange traveled to New York. Some testified in federal court. They’re suing over three dozen chemical companies for manufacturing the toxin. The list of companies being sued includes Dow Chemical and Monsanto.

Two of the victims visited our firehouse studio and described how Agent Orange has affected their lives. Nguyen Thi Hong was exposed to Agent Orange in 1964. She gave birth prematurely to three underweight children, one of whom had a congenital heart defect. She suffers from cancer and cirrhosis and other maladies. Nguyen Muoi wasn’t born until after the war ended, but has also been affected by Agent Orange. His father was a farmer who served as a cook in a "hot spot" where Agent Orange was stored. I asked them to describe how the dioxin has affected them.

NGUYEN THI HONG: [translated] So from 1964 to 1990, I was pregnant for six times, and I gave birth six times. But I managed to have four births, and I had two miscarriages. Of the four children, one of them is suffering from heart disease, inborn heart disease, and his memory, he’s mentally retarded.

In 1990, I became very sick. At the beginning, I was suffering from some kind of liver pain, and I had to be hospitalized. The doctors told me I had some kind of liver cancer. And through some period of medical treatment, well, they say that, you know, the spleen was — there was something wrong with the spleen. It became bad, and that’s why, you know, they cannot maintain the spleen, and so I had a surgery. It was removed. The spleen was removed.

In 1997, the doctors from other countries, international doctors, took a blood test in the blood center, and they gave a blood test. In 2000, we got the results of the test. They confirmed and concluded that I am affected with dioxin.

In 2002, I had breast cancer, and I had a surgery, and the breast was removed. Well, as a result of the findings, the doctor mentioned to me that I was suffering from cancer and it is the terminal period, and I’m suffering from the aftermath of the cancer, and it’s now going to my bones. And I was subjected to some chemotherapy. And I was suffering something from the bones in the backbones, as well as on my head. So from 1990 up to now, I’m suffering from a terrible skin disease.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn now to Nguyen Muoi to tell your experience.

NGUYEN MUOI: [translated] I had three older sisters, then another brother, and then a miscarriage, and then me. My mother gave birth to me, and I was very small at birth. They called me the thinny boy. And later on, my father was suffering from stomach ache. Three-thirds [sic] of the stomach was removed. And he also suffers from the pain in half of his head and pain in all the joints, hands and legs. Very difficult for him to breathe. And his eyesight is very weak. So, in general, he’s very weak physically.

In 2000, I was beginning to feel that there was some kind of very terrible pain in my back, and I was given some kind of medical treatment. And the doctor told me that I was suffering from spinal bifida. And then I had to quit school for medical treatment. But as a result of the medical treatment, I didn’t feel that the pain in my back reduced. And to my sadness, the doctor told me that I am suffering from dioxin.

AMY GOODMAN: Nguyen Muoi and Nguyen Thi Hong, two Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange. They’re both plaintiffs in a lawsuit against over three dozen U.S. chemical companies. I also spoke with their lawyer, Jonathan Moore, and Merle Ratner. She is co-coordinator of the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility Campaign. I began by asking Merle Ratner why she’s brought these Vietnamese victims to the United States.

MERLE RATNER: We’ve brought them here, because the time for justice and compensation for Vietnam’s Agent Orange victims is long overdue. More than 30 years after the war, the U.S. has still not given a single dime in actual compensation to heal the wounds of war, to have these people get treatment, to clean up the hot spots, and to rebuild their lives and to take care of their children, which are now going to the third generation of some really disabled children.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain the scope of the problem.

MERLE RATNER: More than three million Vietnamese people are suffering from Agent Orange-related illness, and we’re into the fourth generation now of children who were not even alive during the war, who are being born with the most horrendous birth defects. And we have a national campaign led by veterans, Vietnamese Americans and other concerned people, that’s saying we’re going to demand that both the chemical companies who made and profited from the Agent Orange and the U.S. government, which ordered it sprayed, harming so many Vietnamese and also American veterans, who are also taking up the struggle, compensate them for their losses and for their futures, taking care of their children.

AMY GOODMAN: What companies?

MERLE RATNER: It has been Dow, Monsanto, Hercules, Diamond Shamrock, and some thirty other companies. The two biggest companies are Dow Chemical and Monsanto, who are still involved in poisoning the land and the water with their byproducts in India and in the U.S., but their biggest crimes were in Vietnam.

AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Moore, explain the legal issues here. How do these Vietnamese victims come to the United States into a U.S. court?

JONATHAN MOORE: Well, they come to the United States in the same way that the —- and to the U.S. courts the same way the U.S. vets came to the U.S. courts to seek compensation against these chemical companies for being poisoned by their exposure to dioxin. So they stand in no different shoes than the U.S. vets. They have alleged, in addition, though, a unique claim, which is a violation of international law, that the chemical companies violated international law by using a poison in their herbicide, Agent Orange, which they knew, and they deliberately had it in there. They knew it was going to cause a series of medical injury if the Vietnamese were exposed to it, and they did -—

AMY GOODMAN: How do you know they knew?

JONATHAN MOORE: Well, we know they knew, because they tested the product. They knew it contained an excessive and avoidable amount of the poison. They deliberately failed to follow the industry standards at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: What were the standards?

JONATHAN MOORE: The standards on that would have kept the dioxin, which is a byproduct of the manufacturing process, at a minimal level, had they followed those procedures. They deliberately chose not to follow those procedures, which they knew existed at the time, because the government said, "We will buy all the product you can sell us, so make as much as you can." And so, in order to simply make more money, they blew beyond any industry standards and just made it as fast as they could, which is what produced the byproduct, the dioxin. So it wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t negligent.

They deliberately chose to give the U.S. government a product, which was used for 10 years, a total of almost 77 million litters, and was sprayed over five-and-a-half million acres, mostly all in South Vietnam, all in the land of our allies, and it’s estimated to have defoliated 12 percent of the land mass of Vietnam. So this is not a trivial amount. This is not a minor poisoning, a one-time thing. This was a deliberate, conscious decision by these companies over a 10-year period to give the government, manufacture and supply the government, this product that they knew contained a poison.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the U.S. military’s culpability here?

JONATHAN MOORE: Well, we can’t sue the government, because they’re immune. The chemical companies, of course, have argued, because they will get a defense if they can succeed on this, that the military knew as much as the chemical companies did, and therefore the chemical companies should not be held liable. We think it’s really a false issue. The issue is whether these companies manufactured and supplied a product that contained an excessive and avoidable amount of this poison. And the poison had no defoliation qualities. It added nothing to the defoliation, to the use of the herbicide. It was just an unwanted poison, which they had in there because they wanted to sell as much product as they could to the government. It was just greed.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the issue of which companies made the Vietnamese and the U.S. soldiers sick? You’re talking about scores of companies.

JONATHAN MOORE: Right. Well, they all — all the companies produced a product that had an excessive and avoidable amount of the poison in it. They all knew that it was going to be mixed up by the United States into one batch and put in the orange — into the drums with the orange labels around it, which is how it got the name Agent Orange. So we think that there are ways — and there are certainly ways under tort law — to apportion responsibility based upon the amount of product that they produced.

AMY GOODMAN: Have the companies been found culpable before in the case of the U.S. vets?

JONATHAN MOORE: They’ve never been found culpable. On the eve of the first trial against the U.S. companies in 1984, they settled that case for $180 million, which at the time was the largest settlement in a mass tort litigation. By the time they paid the money out, it had risen to $300 million, so many vets got compensation under that scheme. In addition, after the Clinton administration came in, the VA change its policy with respect to compensating veterans. And so, veterans are now paid $1.5 billion a year, and have been for the last 10 to 15 years, in compensation for the very kind of injuries that Mr. Muoi and your other guest have, the very kind of — the very same kind of injuries U.S. vets are now being compensated for.

AMY GOODMAN: So what are you asking for in this case?

JONATHAN MOORE: We’re asking for, basically, accountability and justice. These countries —- these companies should not be allowed to, with impunity, manufacture and supply a product that they knew would cause harm. If they do, they have to be accountable for it. This is a crisis, a public health crisis, of massive proportions. It is estimated by the U.S. government’s own statistics that between two and four million Vietnamese, and that’s Vietnamese combatants, noncombatants, people involved in the war, not involved and just living in the countryside, that between two and four million Vietnamese were exposed. And -—

AMY GOODMAN: How many are you representing in the suit?

JONATHAN MOORE: Well, we filed it as a class action. It has not yet been certified. We have to survive these legal challenges to our ability to go forward. That’s what we’re trying to do now.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the court scene like right now in the federal court? How many lawyers are arrayed against you?

JONATHAN MOORE: Well, actually, as a sort of a strange measure of the seriousness to which these companies take it, they hired to represent them — and we had an argument in the court of appeals on Monday — they hired Seth Waxman — that’s the former Solicitor General of the United States — to represent them. They have no shortage of large law firms and numerous lawyers, but we, notwithstanding that, we are pressing forward, and we believe in our cause, because it’s a just cause, and it would be an immoral and unjust result.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you demanding a certain amount of money?

JONATHAN MOORE: We’re demanding that they first determine the extent of the problem and, to the extent that people were injured by their exposure to Agent Orange and the dioxin, that they be compensated for it. And to the extent that they have done environmental damage, that they remediate that, they clean it up. We don’t know what that will be, but it will certainly be a large number. But regardless of the size of it, it’s a necessary result. It must happen in order for justice to be given to the Vietnamese.

AMY GOODMAN: Merle Ratner.

MERLE RATNER: Yes. Yes, I want to add that, first of all, the delegation is going to be continuing on in the U.S. This is the second delegation. This is a campaign we intend to win, through the courts and through public pressure, through information, through lobbying. And the delegation will be going on, actually, to the home of Dow Chemical in Midland, Michigan, to go to the seat of the problem, to work with people there who’ve been affected by dioxin dumping in their local communities. Then the delegation will be going to Chicago for the United for Peace and Justice assembly and on to San Francisco.

And we want to urge people to get involved in this issue. Veterans have been taking a leading role, because they know the problem. They suffer from the same diseases as Mrs. Hong and Mr. Muoi. And the Vietnamese community, as well, is suffering from the diseases of those war veterans. So we want to ask people to get involved in building support for justice for all Agent Orange victims, and particularly for the Vietnamese Agent Orange victims. And there’s a website, if I may:,

AMY GOODMAN: We will link to that at our website.

MERLE RATNER: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: How much coverage is this getting in Vietnam?

MERLE RATNER: A lot of coverage. This is a top issue in Vietnam. All the national newspapers have run stories. The delegation has met with General Giap, who was the famous leader of the struggle against the French before they left. That was covered. There’s been daily coverage of every major newspaper in Vietnam of the trip to the United States of this delegation. This is a top issue for people in the countryside and the cities, because everyone pretty much has relatives or knows someone that’s suffering from the results of Agent Orange, and the tragedy is immense.

AMY GOODMAN: Merle Ratner and attorney Jonathan Moore on the Agent Orange class-action lawsuit.

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