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Deadly Medicines and Chemicals

When they were manufactured, administered and sprayed in the 20th century, the chemicals and pharmaceuticals in this video were thought to be relatively safe. 

Or at least, that’s the official story. 

But in hindsight, their use resulted in scores of deaths and horrible side effects for millions of unfortunate people who took them knowingly or came into contact with them unintentionally, and many of the repercussions are still being felt around the world today. 

It makes one wonder what mundane substances are currently being used freely, that in future decades might make it onto lists similar to this one.

Oh well, just food for thought…

Let’s jump in. 

Agent Orange

Though Agent Orange is most well-known for its widespread use during the Vietnam Conflict, it was just one of a number of herbicides developed jointly by the United States and England during World War II. 

Agent Orange’s long and ultimately infamous history began in 1943, when the US Army hired 

William Arthur Galston
William Arthur Galston. By Medill DC, is
licensed under CC-BY

University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign botanist – and ironically bioethicist – Arthur Galston to study and document the effects of promising new exfoliants on both broadleaf plants and crops, including cereal grains like rice. 

Just a few years before, Galston had made a name for himself doing post-graduate work, but his research focused on finding chemical compounds that made soybeans flower and bear fruit more quickly than normal.  

What he discovered however, was that high concentrations of some compounds actually had the opposite effect, and that in many cases they acted as herbicides instead of fertilizers. 

From these studies arose new concepts with numerous commercial and military applications, the most prominent of which was using herbicides sprayed from aircraft to destroy ground cover and crops over vast swaths of agricultural, rural and mountainous areas in enemy territory. 

Tests were originally conducted on various compounds at the Bushnell Army Airfield in Florida, and thanks to encouraging results full-scale production was ordered. 

At that time the outcome of the Second World War was far from certain, and the new defoliants would’ve been used in Japan if the Allies had resorted to invading the mainland. 

In the post-war years along with the Brits, the Army tested more than 1,000 new compounds in India, Africa, Australia and the United States, with a special focus on how they worked in tropical climates.

Between 1952 and 1953, large sprays were conducted in Kenya to test their defoliating properties, as well as to see whether they’d help with tsetse fly eradication efforts.

It was from these tests that “Agent Orange” was born – a concoction of toxins now characterized as carcinogens by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA. 

Fast forward nearly a decade, and as the story goes, in mid-1961, South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem asked the US to conduct aerial herbicide spraying over much of his beleaguered country.

It’s a claim that many historians laugh off, primarily because it’s widely known that Diem was an American puppet, and probably more accurately, the CIA used this as a cover story to wipe their proverbial hands clean of potential negative fallout. 

Whatever the case, in August of ‘61 the Republic of Vietnam Air Force conducted herbicide operations with American help, and the practice sparked heated debate through the halls of US power – the same halls of power populated by the same politicians who’d look the other way years later when Napalm was used with horrifying results. 

Many US officials pointed to the fact that the British had used herbicides and defoliants extensively in Southeast Asia since the ‘50s, which according to them, was proof that it was a good idea. 

Convinced of its worth, by November, President Kennedy had authorized Operation Ranch Hand, the codename for the US Air Force’s defoliation program. 

A few months later in early ‘62, the first batch was offloaded at Tan Son Nhut Air Base near what’s now Ho Chi Minh City.

Official records show that more than 6,000 spraying missions were carried out over nearly a decade, during which approximately 20 million US gallons of various chemicals, collectively known as “rainbow herbicides” were dropped not only over Vietnam, but eastern Laos and Cambodia as well. 

It’s estimated that by 1971, about 12% of South Vietnam’s land area had been sprayed, and the collection of toxic chemicals were sometimes 100 times more concentrated than the US Department of Agriculture deemed safe for domestic agricultural use. 

The stated goals of the program were to deprive NVA guerilla fighters of the food that sustained them, the cover they used to evade detection, and for clearing areas around forts and firebases to make defending them easier. 

It was also argued that the program’s covert aim was urbanization, or more specifically depriving rural peasants of the means of providing for themselves, and more importantly the fighters who many of them supported. 

As early as the mid-’60s, military personnel were told that their efforts were destroying crops that were feeding the very soldiers who were killing their comrades. 

However, in a classic twist, it was later discovered that nearly all of the food they’d been eradicating was being consumed by poor peasants hopelessly trapped between two opposing forces that were using them as pawns.  

Since the war’s end, the Vietnames government claims that nearly 3 million people have suffered terrible illnesses as a result.  

The Red Cross of Vietnam estimates that up to 1 million people are disabled or have health problems due to Agent Orange, and big shocker, the United States government challenges these figures, and in some cases denies them altogether. 

But many Vietnam vets suffer from Agent Orange related ailments as well, including Leukemia, 

Hodgkin’s disease, lymphoma, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and multiple cancers that affect nearly every system in the body, which many physicians and advocacy groups blame on Agent Orange.  


Pack of Thalidomide tablets circa 2006 or later
Pack of Thalidomide tablets circa 2006 or later. By Stephencdickson, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Developed during the ‘50s by West German pharmaceutical manufacturer Chemie Grünenthal GmbH, Thalidomide first hit pharmacy shelves in 1957 and was available without a prescription, or “over the counter,” before the side effects it produced caused one of the biggest scandals in modern medical history. 

Thalidomide sold under multiple brand names including Contergan and Thalomid, and as is often the case thanks to spotty regulation, it was often used to treat ailments and diseases for which it was never intended.

Sold in Europe and the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, when it was first released Thalidomide was billed as a cure-all for a number of common sleep and nervous disorders, as well as the pesky and sometimes debilitating morning sickness experienced by expecting mothers. 

The drug wasn’t approved in the United States, but as many as 20,000 Americans were given Thalidomide in the 1950s and 1960s as part of clinical trials run by drug manufacturers like Richardson-Merrell and Smith, Kline and French.

It was initially thought that Thalidomide was safe to take during pregnancy, but concerns arose just a few years later when spikes in miscarriages, infant deaths and birth defects occurred in countries where it was sold. 

Just a few years after becoming available, the medication was removed from pharmacies across Europe pending further investigation. 

The medical establishment didn’t pick up on the connection immediately, but eventually 

Investigators, regulators and doctors were able to draw a direct line between cause and effect. 

Estimates of the total number of embryos affected were between 10,000 and 20,000, of which approximately 40% died at or very near to the time of birth. 

Many of the babies who survived were horribly deformed, and collectively they became known as the “children of Thalidomide.” 

Defects included stunted, misformed and/or missing limbs and eyes as well as severe nervous system and heart problems that often proved fatal if the child survived birth. 

Thalidomide’s entry into the US market was blocked by a concerned FDA regulator named Frances Kelsey, who when she was hired in 1960 was just one of less than a dozen full-time physicians reviewing new drug applications. 

One of Kelsey’s first assignments was reviewing an application by Richardson-Merrell for Thalidomide, or Kevadon.  

Though it had already been approved in Canada and dozens of European and African countries, she withheld approval pending data from further studies, despite pressure from company executives and the powerful pharmaceutical lobby. 

Ironically, one of the things Kelsey requested was proof that the drug wasn’t harmful to fetuses. 

Now to the dismay of its most ardent detractors, Thalidomide is used widely across Britain’s NHS, and it’s included on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines. 

In fact it’s used all over the world to treat a wide variety of conditions and diseases ranging from bone and skin cancer, to AIDS, leprosy, tuberculosis and graft-versus-host disease, a serious immune system response during which a host’s body rejects donor skin or cell grafts.  

Common side effects of Thalidomide include drowsiness, dizziness, and rashes, as well as more serious issues like increased incidence of blood clots, heart attacks, liver damage, and peripheral neuropathy, in which the electrochemical connections between the brain and nervous system and extremities are impaired and damaged, sometimes irreparably.

Proponents of Thalidomide point to the fact that only between 1 and 10% of those who take it experience these side effects, most of which aren’t any more serious than they are for other more common and less controversial drugs. 

Now the US Food and Drug Administration and other national regulatory agencies have approved the drug for limited use, but only with comprehensive risk evaluation and mitigation strategies in place to ensure that those taking it are aware of the risks.

After the Thalidomide scandal broke a number of class action lawsuits were filed in multiple countries.

Some resulted in settlements, but most only paid small percentages of the original claims, and not surprisingly, six decades later the battle still rages, and many doctors, scientists and regulators believe the drug should be banned entirely. 


Though Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, or DDT, was first manufactured in the 1870s, its insecticidal properties wouldn’t be discovered by Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Müller

until 1939. 

50% Dichloro Diphenyl Trichloroethane (DDT) insecticide powder container, circa early 1960s.
50% Dichloro Diphenyl Trichloroethane (DDT) insecticide
powder container, circa early 1960s.

As one of the first totally synthetic insecticides, DDT was developed commercially and saw relatively widespread use beginning in the 1940s. 

Originally used to combat diseases like typhus and malaria that are typically transmitted from insects like mosquitoes to humans, DDT was inexpensive and easy to make, and it had a number of promising commercial and agricultural applications that manufacturers were eager to exploit. 

In the United States alone, DDT was manufactured by more than a dozen companies including Ciba, Monsanto and the Velsicol Chemical Corporation, and production peaked at more than 82,000 tons in 1963. 

DDT was widely used by livestock growers and farmers, in private homes and gardens, as well as at institutions like primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities and government agencies, all in the name of public health. 

However, one of the first unintended consequences was the rise of insect species that had become resistant to it, which in turn led to the development of even more potent, and in some cases more deadly chemicals. 

Before the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970, the US Department of Agriculture took regulatory action in the ‘50s and ‘60s to limit DDT’s use, thanks largely to mounting evidence showing that its benefits weren’t as spectacular as previously thought, and that it was harming humans, animals and the environment. 

But though evidence of DDT’s dark side was becoming more widely known, it wasn’t until the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962 that the issue was thrust under national and international spotlights. 

That said, it wouldn’t be until 1972 when the EPA issued an order for the cessation of DDT use. 

DDT’s impact on humans, animals and the environment has been studied for decades, and like many hot-button issues it has become politicized, though it’s now widely accepted as truth that it’s exceedingly harmful. 

Some claim that DDT is responsible for many of the cancers that are so common now, but it’s still only classified as a “probable” carcinogen by most international health authorities, perhaps for no other reason than to deflect blame away from powerful and connected manufacturers and regulators who failed to do their jobs. 

Though it hasn’t been used for decades, DDT is still present in the environment, and scientists say that it’s not going anywhere for a long, long time. 

DDT also tends to accumulate in the tissues of those humans and animals who consume or come into contact with it in even trace amounts, and it can also be blown into the atmosphere easily where it can travel long distances. 

Studies have shown that DDT is at least partially responsible for wide ranging diseases and conditions including breast and other cancers, infertility in men, miscarriages, low birth weight and retardation, as well as nervous system and liver damage that can be fatal. 

Since 1996, the EPA has participated in international negotiations aimed at limiting and controlling the use of DDT and similar pollutants the world over.  

Under the United Nations Environment Program, in 2004 170 countries ultimately formalized a treaty – known as the Stockholm Convention –  that restricted the use of DDT to emergency situations like malaria outbreaks in developing countries, primarily in Africa.  

A few years later the World Health Organization officially supported the indoor use of DDT in some African countries, where hundreds of thousands die every year due to mosquito borne illnesses. 

In other words, in some instances DDT’s benefits far outweigh its risks, at least as far as the WHO is concerned. 

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