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Dow Chemical and Agent Orange

Dow's Michigan Operations Plant - Midland, MI
Dow’s Michigan Operations Plant – Midland, MI (from The Guardian)

The Dow Chemical Company is one of the largest chemical companies in the world, with its headquarters and main plant in Midland, Michigan. It is an international company that has made an effect around the globe. Dow deals with many chemicals, but is largely known for its work with plastics.

One of the most controversial aspect of the Vietnam War was the use of Agent Orange and its effects on Vietnam and the U.S. soldiers deployed there. To this day, legal battles are still occurring forty years after the war has ended. Much of the dispute in these cases is over who is primarily responsible for the problems caused by Agent Orange. The companies that produced Agent Orange for the military have been the main target in these battles. One of the most prominent companies in the disputes is The Dow Chemical Company.

The Dow Chemical Company was founded in 1897 by Herbert Dow. When it was first founded, the company produced bleach. Herbert Dow learned how to extract bromide from brine. Herbert Dow was immediately put to the test when a German bromide producer saw what he was doing and cut their prices in half in order to drive him out of business. Dow could not afford to match those prices and was driven into debt, but managed to stay afloat until new business opportunities arose (Reference for Business, 2001).

World War 1 was the first time that Dow Chemical became involved with the military. They made phenol and other chemicals to be used as munitions for the United States during the war. This was also the first time that Dow helped America’s military efforts. Its experience with chemicals from the First World War paved the road to an expanding range of products in the future (Reference for Business, 2001).

Dow later went on researching heavily into plastics and other materials, becoming a company that would put more resources toward research than the actual sales of its products. This would prove beneficial because it kept the company at the front of the industry with the most advanced technology. It also led to involvement with World War 2. This was mostly with magnesium for airplanes and due to a rubber shortage Dow’s research in synthetic rubber became very useful in the war. After both World Wars Dow Chemical proved it was useful for the military’s chemical needs.

Agent Orange Spray
Planes Spraying Agent Orange in Vietnam (Business Insider)

The controversy started during the Vietnam War when the United States military had Dow Chemical produce chemicals for the war. Dow legally became a contractor for the government, which becomes important in the eventual legal battles (Hynes, 2011). The most controversial one was Agent Orange. Other companies also produced these chemicals, but Dow was one of the main producers. Agent Orange would later become a major issue because of the lethal doses of dioxin that it contained. A couple other substances produced were napalm and Agent Purple. Agent Orange was produced from 1962 to 1971. The military would use it by spraying it out of airplanes and covering areas with the chemical. The purpose was to defoliate vegetation and prevent growth of crops in the future. Another use was to kill vegetation and open up supply lines (Frey, 2013).

After the Vietnam War era Dow would continue to grow. It profited during the oil embargo in the early 1970s since it had its own petroleum supply it could use for manufacturing plastics. In 1980, after a change in leadership and reorganization of the company, Dow’s sales exceeded $10 billion for the first time. The Company would start to get involved with many different businesses in the upcoming years. In 1981 Merrell Drug was purchased, increasing involvement in Pharmaceuticals. This purchase made Dow liable for the drug Bendectin, which eventually was linked to many birth defects. Dow had to handle many law suits just like it would have to in the Agent Orange battle (Reference for Business, 2001). Dow would soon develop its own Agriculture and Automotive division around the end of the century and solidify itself as one of the leading international chemical companies.

The Effect of Agent Orange

Agent Orange still has a terrible prolonged effect on both Vietnamese civilians and American veterans. The estimated 12 million gallons that were dumped in Vietnam still affect the soil in Vietnam, disabling it from plant growth and has given people in those areas various health problems (Arnold, 1995). Nearly one seventh of Vietnam was covered with the chemical (Hynes, 2011). Many of the areas sprayed have lost all vegetation or have poor growth on the surface. It could take hundreds of years for the habitat to regenerate back to what it was before the war (Mirer, 2011).

The health issues of the Vietnamese that were exposed to Agent Orange have been shown to be very drastic. They have suffered from diseases such as liver damage, cancer and heart issues. Their reproductive capacity has been hampered and they have skin and nervous system disorders. Even their future generations are affected by the Agent Orange exposure that their ancestors lived through. The younger generations suffer from mental and physical disabilities, and severe physical deformities (Mirer, 2011). A study of the soil and crops grown in Vietnam that was published by the Journal of Environmental and Public Health in 2014 found that the crops that are coming from the soil in a central Vietnam village are still toxic. It concluded that the areas that were directly sprayed are still very toxic, but even the surrounding areas were affected and are harmful to the people living there. It is aimed to raise awareness of the issues in Vietnam, hoping that health and public organizations will realize the problem and give aid to the situation (Environmental and Public Health, 2014).

Most of the controversy in America is not over the effects in Vietnam, but over the effects on the United States troops that were deployed there. Many veterans have had adverse effects from being nearby Agent Orange, similar to the effects on the Vietnamese people. According to a Chicago Tribune article from May 2, 1990, at the time Agent Orange was already clearly linked to five different types of cancer and several chronic diseases (Millensen, 1990)

The Agent Orange Legal Disputes

Due to the health problems that Agent Orange has caused, many lawsuits have been filed. The blame for these problems primarily went to the chemical companies. They were attacked for producing the chemicals that the government paid them to make. A major case in the early 1980’s would take place. In the early 1980’s the veterans affected by Agent Orange got together in order to sue the chemical companies that produced the chemical for the war. The plaintiffs amounted around 30,000. The tens of thousands of plaintiffs were to be represented by a panel of nine that had strong cases to make. On the defendants side was seven major chemical companies, one of the major ones was The Dow Chemical Company. They were represented by major law firms. The government itself was also ordered to become a defendant. It was thought that the trial itself would last around half a year, while other litigation would tie up other courts for years. Legal fees alone could reach $100 million (Chicago Tribune, 1984).

The trial would have been tough for the chemical companies, mostly because the jury could have easily felt sympathy towards the injured veterans. This sympathy would have been hard to look past when choosing a verdict. It could have clouded the fact that at the time there was not strong scientific evidence directly tying Agent Orange to many of the ailments. Most studies at the time of the case would not be finished for a few more years. It would have been hard to explain to the jury that there wasn’t much of a pattern yet to the troubles that the victims were going through. The results from researching the toxins on animals showed that it caused cancer and birth defects (Garmon, 1984). Although the only result that researching humans who were exposed only concluded that a skin rash was a symptom. For what was known at the time, the veterans could have just been blaming disease they obtained naturally on Agent Orange. The high risk case could have easily been influenced by emotions and sympathy (Chicago Tribune, 1984). If the companies lost, they would have very likely had to forever assume liability for Agent Orange in the future. This is why they looked for another path to finishing the trial.

In 1984, just before the trial would have begun, a settlement was made with the chemical companies. They agreed to pay to the victims as long as they did not have to assume liability for the damage done in Vietnam and to the veterans. The settlement meant that the chemical companies would pay $180 million into a settlement fund. The fund would only last until December 31, 1994. The settlement would not provide any payments after the fund ended. This meant that if anyone was to start experiencing Agent Orange related health problems after 1994, they would not be covered by the settlement. This would lead to more legal cases after 1994. The settlement stated that each company would pay in proportion to how toxic their own mixture of chemicals was. Dow Chemical actually produced an Agent Orange that was less toxic compared to many of the other companies, so they did not suffer as heavily financially from the settlement.

An article published in 1989 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science covers how the government, in the era of the major 1984 settlement, would still not assume responsibility for Agent Orange. Their defense was that without irrefutable proof of Agent Orange’s harmful effects, it would not be responsible for any of the Veteran’s health issues. Congress tried to avoid it completely. Two diseases that some studies linked were soft tissue sarcoma and non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and compensation for just those two diseases could have cost $100 million (Barinaga, 1989). Any new found links to disease would keep making it worse. A few years before, due to immense pressure, Congress ordered a study to be done in 1979. They needed a precise study, but right from the start there was debate on how to accomplish that. The study was eventually put in the hands of the CDC. The study began in 1983, and in 1987 the conclusion was that dioxin exposure could not be concluded from records alone. The American Legion then took charge and sent out questionnaires to veterans asking about when and where exactly they served, and what health problems they suffered from, if any. It would then be looked into whether they would have been exposed to Agent Orange or not. Some thought that this was sufficient, but a dioxin lab test was eventually found to be possible and the results from the tests were very different from the questionnaire results. The blood test concluded that not many were actually exposed to Agent Orange. Many did not believe this though and tried to fight the results (Barinaga, 1989). The overall study stagnated and was not very successful. Even future studies would be contested to be invalid, very successfully keeping the responsibility off of the government.

To this day, legal battles over Agent Orange are still occurring and the chemical companies are continuously the ones targeted. Responsibility is denied by Dow and the other companies, saying that they are not liable because they were government contractors. Nonetheless, with the government denying any responsibility, The Dow Chemical Company is still one of the prime targets because of its large production of Agent Orange and its continuous involvement with the military throughout the company’s history.


Primary Sources

  1. Barinaga, Marcia. “Agent Orange: Congress Impatient for Answers.” Science 245 (1989): 249,250.
  2. Beck, Joan. “Agent Orange case: who won?” Chicago Tribune 9 May. 1984, sec. 1:14.
  3. Millenson, Michael. “Vets’ Scientific Task Force Links Agent Orange 5 Types of Cancer.” Chicago Tribune 2 May 1990, sec. 1: 13.

Secondary Sources

  1. Banout, Jan, Ondrej Urban, Vojtech Musil, Jirina Szakova, and Jiri Balik. “Agent Orange Footprint Still Visible in Rural Areas of Central Vietnam.” Journal of Environmental and Public Health (2014): 1-10. Proquest. Hindawi Publishing Corproation.
  2. Frey, R Scott. “Agent Orange and America at War in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.” Human Ecology Review 20.1 (2013): 1-10,67.
  3. Hynes, Patricia. “Chemical Warfare: Agent Orange.” Truthout. 11 Aug. 2011.
  4. Garmon, L. “Agent Orange Issue: Far from Settled.” Science News 4 Sept. 1982: 149.
  5. Mirer, Jeanne. Cohn, Marjorie. “The Toxic Effects of Agent Orange Persist 51 Years after the Vietnam War.” Truthout. 07 Aug. 2012.
  6. Reference For Business “The Dow Chemical Company – Company Profile.” The Dow Chemical Company – Company Profile, Information, Business Description, History, Background Information on The Dow Chemical Company. Reference for Business. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <>.
  7. Schecter, A., L C Dai, L T Thuy, H T Quynh, D Q Minh, H D Cau, P H Phiet, N T Nguyen, J D Constable, and R. Baughman. “Agent Orange and the Vietnamese: The Persistence of Elevated Dioxin Levels in Human Tissues.” American Journal of Public Health 85.4 (1995): 516-22.