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Thursday, 1 May 1980
Page: 2084


Senator MELZER (Victoria) - I enter this debate and take as my starting point the aspect on which Senator Grimes concluded. In common with many other people in Australia, and especially the Vietnam veterans and their families who were affected by these defoliants, I was appalled by the attitude that the Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Mr Adermann) and the Government took earlier this year when this matter first hit the headlines in Australia. I suggest that it was not the first time that the Minister or his Department had heard of agent orange or its effect because by that time some of these veterans had spent two years trying to attract the attention of the Minister and his Department to the very real problems they have and to the very real evidence that exists to show the connection with the service that they carried out in Vietnam for Australia.

In January-February, when this matter was first raised in desperation by Vietnam veteransthey could not attract the attention of the Government when they first went to the Pressthe reaction of the Government and the Minister was that the stories were not so; their claims were not true. They said that the Vietnam veterans were not being affected by anything like herbicides, that we had not used herbicides in Vietnam and Australians had not been affected. As the weeks went by and in late February and March Parliament was back in session, we had involved not only the Minister for Veterans' Affairs but also the Minister for Defence (Mr Killen). The Minister for Defence, with his colleague the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, continually maintained in the Parliament that Australians had not used agent orange, toxic herbicides, and therefore were not affected by the material. Mr Adermann reaffirmed several times in the Parliament that this was so. He changed his ideas a little to affirm that he was aware that agent orange had been used in Vietnam but that that was not a toxic herbicide and so the soldiers in Vietnam could not possibly have been affected. A transcript of a PM broadcast on the Australian Broadcasting Commission records that Mr Adermann said that so far as he was aware agent orange was not used by Australian troops although other toxic herbicides were used. He went on to spell out that herbicides were used by the Army to keep foliage back from the perimeter fence of the base at Nui Dat. The Air Force used them from helicopters for the localised destruction of small rice crops adjacent to Viet Cong base camps. He claimed that there was no secrecy about that at all. He went on to say that the chemicals used were commercial grade herbicides widely employed in agriculture and for domestic purposes throughout Australia and, indeed, the world. He said they were standard commercial grade herbicides which were available in Australia and which in fact were purchased in Australia from commercial sources.

I do not know what the people were more appalled at- the ignorance of the Minister in that he did not know what was being used by the Army in Vietnam or his assertion that the material that was used was material used for domestic purposes throughout Australia and the world; that indeed it was standard material that was bought as commercial grade herbicides purchased from commercial sources in Australia. By that time even the most ordinary person knew that many herbicides were extraordinarily dangerous products and that many contained contaminants which, if not kept under control, could cause death, cancer or severe illness. Many of us know by that time that the herbicides that had been used in Vietnam were herbicides that had been deliberately made more dangerous than we thought the commercial herbicides available in Australia were. We were faced first of all with a government that said: 'It was not used. We do not know. We were not there. We had nothing to do with it'. Then we were told that the dangerous substance that could cause the illness that people were complaining about was a substance that was bought in Australia. We were faced with a Minister who apparently did not have the faintest idea what the Army had used. One was forced to wonder whether he even know what the Army was doing at that time or what it might plan to do if it went into another conflict.

Of course, as those statements were made, and because many people were caught up in the Vietnam war, people began to come forward to show that story was nonsense; that the Minister did not know what he was talking about. Veteran after veteran and servicemen after servicemen came forward to give evidence showing quite conclusively that Australia had sprayed the material, that Australian helicopters had been used to spray the material, that Australian servicemen had sprayed it and that Australian servicemen had been drenched with the material by their own helicopters, by their own forces, and by the forces of the United States of America.

We reached the point where Mr Killen finally tabled documents relating to the use of herbicides around Nui Dat. Those documents showed that in 1968 the people using this material had been badly affected by the heavy use of herbicides. They had suffered nose bleeds, ulcerations, conjunctivitis and symptoms of the breakdown of mucous membranes. Documents at that time concluded that closer attention to personal hygiene and safety precautions would overcome the problem. But by the evidence that veteran after veteran gave nobody was too pressing about making sure that those personal hygiene precautions or safety precautions were in any way enforced by the Army. Veteran after veteran was returned home with increasing symptoms and increasing distress from the heavy use of herbicides.

We came to the point where a former member of this Parliament- a politician of the same persuasion as the Government- came forward and said that the Federal Government did not know what it was talking about. I am referring to John Sullivan, who at one stage held the Federal seat of Riverina. He came forward and, in great detail, gave a picture of what had happened when he was an instructor in a jungle warfare school in South Vietnam. He had seen his men soaked in defoliant. He did more. He gave a film to the Government which showed in graphic detail Army personnel being drenched in defoliant. He maintained that he had seen his men suffer from the effects of exposure to the chemicals. Despite what the Government had said we were supplied with a tremendous amount of evidence showing that the material had been used. Not only did the Government agree that agent orange had been used but it also agreed that many other chemicals had been used. It finally agreed that agent orange was not one chemical but was a mixture of chemicals that could have serious effects and had been known for a long time to have serious effects. It accepted that our aircraft had carried defoliant chemicals, that they had sprayed large areas; and the Government accepted that other chemicals such as malathion, which was used for mosquito control in Vietnam, had been used.

The Government had to accept that all these chemicals could have caused the sorts of complaints about which our soldiers were complaining. When the Government accepted this we started to find out a little more about the amount of material that had been used in that area. We were given evidence from the United States Air Force that it had sprayed poisonous defoliant over our soldiers. For instance, at one base our soldiers had been sprayed on perhaps 30 occasions. The Pentagon confirmed that a herbicide linked to cancer, nervous disorders and genetic defects was used in Phuoc Tuy Province between 1965 and 1970. The spokesman said he could not say how many herbicide dusting missions were made; nor could he say whether any Australian units were notified. The Government of the United States admitted that it was facing claims from United States servicemen of between $40,000m and $70,000m because of the results of the spraying with agent orange.

The Government finally accepted that our soldiers and probably our airmen were sprayed with agent orange. But still the Government would not accept that a lot of the sickness that was showing up amongst Vietnam veterans could possibly come from this sort of material. The Government resisted the fact that the men who had been drenched with agent orange had used it daily and had come into contact with it continually could possibly be suffering from ill effects. The Government did not believe that the very obvious ill effects that the Vietnam veterans were suffering could possibly come from this sort of chemical. The substance which we suspect has been the main cause of the problem with Vietnam veterans is dioxin. It is not a new substance. It is a substance that has been known to the world for some time. It is a substance that has been referred to by reputable scientists as the most deadly substance ever isolated. An article in the Sun stated:

As a foetus deformer, it is one million times as potent as thalidomide. There can be little doubt that even in the minutest quantities, it can cause cancer.

Three ounces dropped into the water supply of New York could wipe out the entire population of close to 9 million people. Yet, between 1962 and 1970, the US dumped more than 1 30 pounds of dioxin on Vietnam.

Dioxin apparently is a totally insidious menace. It can stash itself quietly away in body tissues even when the victim is not directly exposed.

It lurks about in air, water and food. Its toxicity lasts between 14 and 30 years.

That was an agent which was present in a deal of the material which was dumped on our servicemen. The Dow chemical company was the chemical company which produced much of the material used in Vietnam, much of the so-called agent orange. According to a document of Dow Chemical (Australia) Ltd, agent orange contained up to 50 parts per million of the deadly dioxin TCDD. It was sprayed in Vietnam in concentrations of up to 10 times those used in agriculture today, according to the document. In other words, agent orange applied in Vietnam at times held 5,000 times the concentration of TCDD, a side product of the chemical 2,4,5-T, than is permitted in herbicides used in Australia, where it is restricted to a concentration of one part per 10 million.

So we know our men were there, we know the material was used, we know the material was sprayed on them. We know the material which was sprayed on them has an extraordinarily bad effect on human beings. Yet we still are not prepared to take a great deal of action on the matter. It has been concluded in scientific circles that it is abundantly clear that dioxin is an exceedingly toxic and stable substance, that it can be readily incorporated into an ecosystem, within which it becomes distributed to the various living and non-living components and that, once thus incorporated, it is extraordinarily persistent and virtually impossible to remove. It thus becomes additionally evident that dioxin could be employed for hostile purposes in order to make some large area of enemy territory irreversibly uninhabitable for an extended period, a use, one might add, that has been similarly suggested for plutonium.

Did we know that our men were going to be subjected to those sorts of chemicals? Did we know that we were using that sort of substance on a small country which we had invaded? Did we know that that sort of effect could stay there for an incredibly long time? On 3 1 March 1 980 the Minister for Veterans' Affairs said in the House of Representatives:

One of the difficulties with which we are faced and which we share with the United States authorities is to establish scientifically that the symptoms and medical problems being experienced by veterans and their families are due to exposure of the veteran to herbicides, of which agent orange is most notorious, during the veterans ' service in Vietnam.

Back in 1 967, when the war was going on in Vietnam, while Operation Ranch Hand was in progress- that is, the operation in which the United States used these herbicides to wipe out foliage and food in Vietnam- American doctors near Da Nang first pointed to the complaint which is now being faced by Australians: Nausea, birth abnormalities and the existence of a skin disease called natis in Vietnam which led to persistent and severe rash. It was only later that the worst effects were noticed, though. Doctors at the Tu Doc Hospital in Saigon first published reports in America of what they termed a foetal disaster in areas that had been heavily sprayed. 'Deformed babies are arriving by the dozens', they wrote, and other hospitals began to see the same thing throughout the south. American scientists had originally complained that the Pentagon was using defoliants without proper scientific research into their effects on humans. That point is now the basis of thousands of law suits in the American courts as American veterans try to take some action against their Government. It would appear that American veterans, like Australian veterans, were the unrecognised victims of what could be the world's biggest and most concentrated use of chemical agents in warfare.

It is not good enough for the Minister to say in 1 980 that we still do not know, that we still face problems in establishing that the symptoms of the medical problems experienced by veterans can be due to herbicides when as far back as 1967 it was becoming exceedingly evident that those herbicides were having a terrible effect on human beings. Since then it has become very evident that what was happening to those men in Vietnam, be they Vietnamese, Americans or Australians, was that they were subjected to, as I said, the biggest and most concentrated use of chemical agents in warfare. That had been going on during all the years of the Indo-China war. I have just mentioned that American doctors said that they were concerned about the effects and that, although there has not been proper scientific research, the effects on the humans concerned were showing up.

Not long ago in the Senate the name of Professor Ton Tatt Tung was raised in a very disparaging fashion, I must say, by Government senators. It was insinuated that, because Professor Tung was at the Viet Duc University Hospital in Hanoi, in some way he was a communist agent who would say anything to denigrate Americans, Australians, the people who fought against the Vietnamese. It is interesting that in many scientific circles that this very eminent man is taken very seriously when it comes to discussing the problems and effects of herbicides. His work commenced as far back as 1960. As far back as 1960 he began monitoring the effects of herbicides, mainly the herbicides used in what we have come to know as agent orange; monitoring the effects as far as birth defects and miscarriages were concerned and monitoring children whose fathers fought in the south and were sprayed with those defoliants. Yet we are still not taking a great deal of notice.

It was not just the Vietnamese who were showing concern or just those doctors who were in Vietnam with the military. Although we did not send many people in to assess what we did to Vietnam, a Herbicide Assessment Commission of the American Association for the Advancement of Science went into Vietnam and its report appears in the congressional records in 1972. That report included a study of birth defects in South Vietnam, which made a correlation between heavily sprayed areas and still births. The doctor in charge reported:

Although that Commission could only study limited areas we did evaluate in detail the birth record in Tay Ninh, a very heavily defoliated province. We found that for the years 1968 and 1969 the Tay Ninh provincial hospital showed a higher rate of stillbirths than any of those reported in the other studies.

It is not just in Vietnam that people have been concerned about dioxin. What appals me is that we do not know whether the military knew what they were doing or whether they did what they did in ignorance. Did they just use that substance as a herbicide or a defoliant, or did they really know that with the high concentrations of dioxin they were really using a weapon against the Vietnamese people? As far back as 1899, 75 years ago, dermitologists had a clinical picture of the disease we now know as chloracne. They confirmed their suspicion that dioxin was the cause of that sort of poisoning. As far back as then we knew that and in the years since there have been repeated disasters in which again and again it was proved that dioxin was the substance causing so many problems. In 1953 in Germany there was an accident in which people were stricken with severe and acute chloracne. That resulted from a disaster and caused all sorts of health problems. The cause was dioxin. In 1961 a disaster in Germany showed it again.

In 1957 in the United States of America there was an outbreak amongst poultry of an unknown disease which was proved to come from dioxin. In 1963 in the Netherlands there was an explosion in a factory producing dioxin. The explosion severely affected 20 workers. It affected the plant to such an extent that it was sealed off for 10 years, after which it was dismantled, brick by brick. I could go on with instance after instance of accidents in industry which show that when dioxin was being used an extraordinarily dangerous substance about which we do not know a great deal and which kills was being used. Yet long years afterwards we were engaged in a war knowing that this material could affect the heart, liver, gastric tract and cause cancer. We were using the chemical presumably to kill the plants and the grass around the camps and to defoliate trees so that the Vietnamese would not be able to hide in the scrub. Extraordinarly, the chemical was not even much good for doing that.

I refer to a senior Australian military representative in Saigon, Colonel Serong. He pointed out that the defoliant actually aided ambushers. If vegetation was close to the road those who were ambushed could take cover quickly. When it was removed the guerrillas had a better field of fire. One wonders why the material was used. A great deal of literature is coming forward suggesting that in using these defoliants and herbicides we and our allies in Vietnam were really using a chemical agent under the lap. I refer to a book called Riot Control Agents and Herbicides in War. It states:

In 1970 the American Government publicly announced a new definition of and a new official doctrine on chemical warfare. As from that time, the use of so-called riot control agents (harassing substances) and anti-plant agents (defoliants and herbicides) -the chemical agents used in Vietnam- was excluded from the concept. In line with this approach, the United States Government has ratified, on 22 January 1975, the Geneva Protocol of 1925 which prohibits chemical warfare, on the understanding that riot control agents and anti-plant agents were not covered by its terms.

I hope that as a result of the Vietnam veterans raising these matters this Government will look more closely at what we mean when we talk about chemical warfare. One wonders what research has been done in Australia in the same line. It is interesting to look through the annual reports of the Defence Standards Laboratories. Research was being carried out at the Joint Tropical Research Unit, that is the joint British and Australian unit, at Innisfail. A glance at the report for 1 969-70 shows that DSL Technical Note 146 dealt with the prediction of downwind aerosol dosages in foliage while four lectures were given on chemical warfare agents. I wonder what exactly we have been doing in Australia. I maintain that that is why we need a full judicial inquiry with terms of reference as wide as possible so that the Australian attitude to chemical weapons can be examined as well as what might have been perpetrated on our soldiers in Vietnam.

It appears that a number of countries including the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom may have been deliberately attempting to thwart the intention of the 1925 Geneva Convention and a number of other agreements since the 1899 Hague Gas Projectile Declaration by arguing that CS, as a police riot control agent, and 2,4,5-T, and others as herbicides, were not chemical warfare agents. We cannot say that we did not know of their effects. As I have said, there were reports on the toxicity of these herbicides as early as 1946. Reports on the toxicity of 2,4,5-T date from the same time. We all know by now that the agents and chemicals used in Vietnam were highly damaging. The people who used them did not know how dangerous they were. The people being drenched by them were not given the opportunity to take any son of precautions against the chemicals. It has been said that at the time we were unaware of their effects. The men who were using them believed that they were doing so to defoliate so that the Vietnamese would be more easily seen. As early as 1945 the Americans were preparing to use 2,4-D on Japanese rice fields. As I have said before in the Senate, the semi-official history of the Royal Australian Air Force in Vietnam, George Odgers' Mission Vietnam. Royal Australian Air Force Operations 1964-1972 contains the following statement:

In November-December 1967 it (No. 9 sqn RAAF) had engaged in . . . operation 'Forrest' (a campaign to deny the rice harvest to the enemy).

No mention is made in that book of the methods that were to be employed to deny the rice harvest to the enemy but it is interesting that the RAAF was engaged in the operation. It is also interesting to note that as far back as 1945 the Americans were preparing to use chemicals to destroy the rice fields. One cannot help but believe that the same sorts of methods would have been used by the RAAF. I ask the Government to investigate whether we have been circumventing the existing laws of warfare by the use of riot control agents and herbicides. I would like somebody to investigate also what redress soldiers have for the actions of their government or those of their allies that were deleterious to their health. I am not referring to normal war injuries or death. That is the position that the Vietnam veterans are in. They maintain that they are suffering from injuries which are not normal war injuries. That appears to be the problem that the Department of Veterans' Affairs has had in facing up to the complaints with which it has been presented.

Since the issue became a major one in December 1979 the Government's response has been an attempt to bury it. Only when forced into the open by overwhelming evidence and reports from men who were actually involved did the Government admit that the material was used. Despite the statement of the Minister for Veterans' Affairs that his Department was seeking all available information from world authorities he persists in making factually wrong statements about the use of the material. The main example of this was his persistence in saying that chloracne is the only symptom conclusively linked to agent orange. As early as 1974 the National Research Council of the United States

National Academy of Sciences, following an exhaustive investigation in Vietnam, said:

On the other hand, a variety of immediately painful and disagreeable symptoms associated with herbicides were described by many people. These can be grouped in five categories: (1) Respiratory symptoms (coughing, shortness of breath, soreness of throat, inability to breathe, coughing blood, bleeding from the nose, etcetera); (2) central nervous system symptoms (headaches and dizziness); (3) gastrointestinal symptoms (diarrhea, nausea, and stomach ache); (4) dermatic and ocular symptoms (skin sores, rash, and eye irritation): and (5) generalised symptoms (pain, fever, fatigue, trembling, perspiring, palpitations, and general soreness).

That statement was included in a publication entitled 'The Effects of Herbicides in South Vietnam' which was put out by the National Research Council of the United States National Academy of Sciences in 1974. Yet in 1979 and 1980 the Minister persists in saying there is no evidence to show that anything but chloracne is a symptom conclusively linked to agent orange. One wonders how far Ministers in this Government go to gather their facts. One wonders whether Ministers for Veterans' Affairs of that ilk care about the veterans who went out, in this Government's own words, to save Australia. A World Health Organisation paper published in August 1977 described a number of toxic effects of dioxin in man. It listed similar symptoms as the National Research Council of the United States. So we can go on.

There is a tremendous amount of evidence that links dioxin with 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, as well as other chemicals that were used in Vietnam, to the sorts of illnesses that our Vietnam veterans have. I have a letter from a Vietnam veteran dated December 1979 telling me of the problems he has trying to convince the Department of Veterans' Affairs that he is ill. It is interesting to note that the symptoms he mentions are exactly the same as those the National Research Council linked to the use of agent orange in South Vietnam. He says he has constant nausea, constant lethargy, constant diarrhoea, constant tiredness and exhaustion, constant vague vision, constant trembling hands and fingers and a pulsating sensation in his body and a complete loss of appetite. With all that, we still had the Minister for Veterans' Affairs in February 1 980 saying:

It should be understood . . . that various overseas studies thus far have produced no confirmation that disabilities reported by veterans are due to exposure to herbicides.

Either the man cannot read or he is deaf- or he does not want to know. It seems extraordinary that, with the overseas evidence, this Government should quibble about providing assistance to men who went to Vietnam in a war that this Government got us into. Scientists will admit that it can take a long and difficult inquiry to link scientifically the effects of agent orange, herbicides, and 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, or dioxin, to each of the men who served in Vietnam. One would have thought that a government which takes notice of the fact that, out of a set number of people who were in a certain area at a specific time, so many suffer from the same illnesses and the same problems, would admit that obviously there is some cause that links them and would show some concern for those men.

This Government gets out of it by saying that, if a person is a veteran, the Department will look after whatever problems he has. It does that without taking into account the fact that these men are worried sick about themselves, about their futures and about their families. The Minister continually asked for links between the illnesses these men suffered from and herbicides. When the Minister was asked why the Government did not go to the veterans, he said that the veterans had to go to the Government. When he was asked why, if his Department was aware of the illnesses among veterans it had not gone to the veterans to make sure that they were not in any way affected, he replied:

Simply because the veterans have not come to us and told us that it's been a problem.

Yet, man after man will tell of the long hours he has spent trying to convince the Department of Veterans' Affairs of his problems. But, even if we convince the Department and the Government that there are a large number of men with real illnesses, what will we do about their children and their wives? For a long time, the Government relied on the supposed fact that deformed children could not be fathered by Vietnam veterans because their wives could not possibly have been affected by the chemicals in the herbicides. More and more research is coming to the fore to show that men can be affected for long periods after they have been subjected to these chemicals, and that they can pass on damaged genes to their children.

One would have thought that a government that says it cares so much for veterans and has such a debt to pay to men who went away to save Australia- to use its words- would have pursued immediately and with a great deal of effort the scientific work that is being done which shows that the reproduction systems of veterans can be affected and, further, would have done this to safeguard the wives who are so worried about the children they will produce. Even if that were to take time, and even if it did not want to pursue that, I would have thought that a government that cared about men who gave up so much of their youth to fight a war into which they were pitched without much choice at least would have taken responsibility for the future of those men. Taking responsibility for the future of those men means taking responsibility for their wives and children and not quibbling about whether the very real effects from which their children are suffering can be linked to a particular instance in the war effort.

In conclusion, I must say that there has since been evidence that not only were men in the Royal Australian Air Force and the Army affected, but also were civilians working in Vietnam similarly drenched with the material. One hopes that this Government will take close notice of that fact and will investigate their problems in the inquiry that it is setting up. One hopes it would also look to the fact that these very chemicals are used here in Australia. For instance, after the Vietnam war there were complaints from chemical companies in Australia that herbicides were being sent straight back from Vietnam and dumped in Australia. They were worried about their market. My party and I are worried about the effect that that material may have had on the people of Australia. ( Quorum formed).







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