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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Chemical Bio-ethics

Air Date: Week of

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When publishing a paper in the 1940s about a chemical that helped soybean plants flower early, Arthur Galston also cautioned that too much of the chemical would cause a plant’s leaves to fall off. His research was later used for the Army’s development of the defoliant Agent Orange. Galston talks about the unintentional consequences of his research with host Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: Today, Arthur Galston is Professor Emeritus of Botany at Yale University. But back in 1942 he was a graduate student at the University of Illinois looking for a way to make soybeans flower early. His work led him to a chemical compound that did the trick, but Professor Galston also noted when he published his results that applying too much of this chemical would cause plants to lose their leaves. Only later did he find out that his work was employed by the U.S. Army to make Agent Orange, the defoliant that saw widespread use in Vietnam to clear away jungle vegetation.

Agent Orange has been linked to a wide variety of health problems, including cancer and birth defects, that have afflicted U.S. veterans and their families, as well as the Vietnamese people.

As Professor Galston tells me, the history of the creation of Agent Orange and his unintentional role in it left him feeling angry and betrayed.

GALSTON: By the time the Vietnam War really heated up, which was in the early ‘60s, I was, at this time, in Pasadena at the California Institute of Technology. I got angry enough at finding that there was military use of this compound that I came to an annual meeting of my society and got some people to sign a petition, which we fired off to President Lyndon Johnson and told him that we thought this was not a good thing to do because these chemicals hadn’t been adequately tested. We were spraying huge quantities of this all over the countryside. It drifted down not only over trees but over crops and over people, and we didn’t know what it was going to do to people.

And several years later, after a campaign, it was found out that 245T, one of the components in Agent Orange, is contaminated with a substance called dioxin. And we now know that there’s a family of compounds called dioxins, many of which are among the most toxic substances known to man.

CURWOOD: How were you able to convince the government to stop using Agent Orange?

GALSTON: Well, this came about through accident, I think, but it was a happy accident for us. I had been at the California Institute of Technology and then I moved to Yale. And by the time this situation matured I was in the East. Some friends and I had been needling the Department of Defense to carry out toxicological studies, and they eventually did this. And what came out was that 245T, the compound I mentioned, produced malformed embryos when administered to pregnant rodents. And the concentrations at which these effects were produced were not very great.

So, armed with this information, we tried to contact the government. And, happily, President Nixon’s science advisor was a distinguished physicist by the name of Lee DuBridge, who had been president of the California Institute of Technology when I was out there. And also one of my colleagues in this endeavor was Professor Matthew Meselson of Harvard. So, the two of us contacted DuBridge and told him that we had this information and he convened a meeting in the old executive office building. And when the data were rolled out and he got a look at them, he contacted Secretary of Defense Mel Laird, who in turn contacted President Nixon. And in 1970, five years before the end of the Vietnam War, Nixon ordered the spraying stopped.

CURWOOD: In the five years that Agent Orange was used, how much was used? How many people, how much countryside was exposed to it?

GALSTON: Well, the easy way to relate it is that it covered an area two-thirds the size of the state of Massachusetts. So, it was a very extensive area. And there was enough of the chemical sprayed-- it got into the millions of gallons and it totals out to enough dioxin to intoxicate every person in Vietnam. Now that didn’t happen, of course, but it did affect some people we now know. And especially pregnant women whose fetus was at a certain stage of development.

CURWOOD: Professor Galston, if you had known back in the ‘40s what you know today, how willing would you have been to do this research?

GALSTON: Oh, I think I would have done it. You know, nothing that you do in science is guaranteed to result in benefits for mankind. Any discovery, I believe, is morally neutral and it can be turned either to constructive ends or destructive ends. That’s not the fault of science. That’s the fault of what society does with scientific findings.

CURWOOD: You teach bioethics at Yale University. What do you tell your students about the risks of conducting scientific research?

GALSTON: (Laughs) I tell them that they can never feel immune from the danger of producing a result that will be misused, and that it’s their social responsibility to enter the fray, even at the cost of having to divert themselves from their further research activity. You’ve got to write articles, you’ve got to speak, you’ve got to join with others, you’ve got to testify in Congress. You’ve got to do what you can to try to regulate the findings and the use of scientific information in such a way that it will benefit society rather than act as a harmful input.

CURWOOD: Professor Arthur Galston discovered the family of chemicals that would ultimately be used as Agent Orange and also successfully convinced the government to stop using Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. He is now Professor Emeritus of Botany at Yale University and teaches a course on bioethics.

Thank you so much for taking this time with us today.

GALSTON: You’re very welcome.

[MUSIC: Davell Crawford “House That Jack Built” The B-3 And Me, Bullseye (1998)]

CURWOOD: And you’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for coverage of western issues.



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