chemicals

During World War I, Britain, like the United States would have to do in World War II, had to employ large numbers of women into jobs vacated by men who had gone to fight in the war. They also had to create new jobs as part of the war effort. As an example, women were hired in munitions factories. The high demand for weapons resulted in the munitions factories becoming the largest single employer of women during 1918. It was a job that many people resisted, mainly because it was seen as “men’s work.” When I think about the work these women were doing, I find myself much more concerned with the toxicity and danger of the materials they were working with, than whether or not the job should be done by a man. Of course, the materials would present the same danger to the men, but the men had always felt like the dangerous work should fall to them.

Nevertheless, with the introduction of conscription in 1916 everything changed. Conscription refers to the process of automatically calling up men and women for military service. During the First World War men (it only applied to men at this time) who were conscripted into the armed forces had no choice but to go and fight, even if they did not want to. Around 1916, with the need becoming serious, the government began coordinating the employment of women through campaigns and recruitment drives. This led to women working in areas of work that were formerly reserved for men. Jobs such as, for example railway guards, ticket collectors, buses, tram conductors, postal workers, police, firefighters, as well as bank tellers and clerks. Some women also worked heavy or precision machinery in engineering, led cart horses on farms, and worked in the civil service and factories.

By 1917 the British munitions factories, which by this time, primarily employed women workers, produced 80% of the weapons and shells used by the British Army. The women working there soon became known as “canaries” because they had to handle TNT (the chemical compound trinitrotoluene that is used as an explosive agent in munitions) which caused their skin to turn yellow. The nickname might have been a cute joke, but the job the women did was far from funny. These women risked their lives working with poisonous substances without adequate protective clothing or the required safety measures, that we know are needed now. During the years of World War I, around 400 women died from overexposure to TNT. I wonder too, how many died in the years that followed the war, from exposure to the same chemicals that had killed the original 400 women.

As if the dangerous working conditions weren’t enough, women were also paid significantly less than men in comparable positions. In 1918, women workers on London’s buses, trams, and subways organized a strike and managed to win equal pay for equal work. When the war ended, many women were fired to free up jobs for returning veterans. Some thanks that was. I’m sure many of the women were glad to go back to their prior jobs, or go home to take care of their families, but to be fired” was just wrong in every way. Nevertheless, in return for their hard work, these women were fired so that the returning men could have a job again.

The Vietnam war was many things, but I don’t think anyone really expected Operation Ranch Hand…at least not the general public. Who would have expected such a heinous act to be carried out by the government. Operation Ranch Hand was a United States military operation during the Vietnam War, lasting from 1962 until 1971. The operation was largely inspired by the British use of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D (Agent Orange) during the Malayan Emergency in the 1950s. It was part of the overall program during the war called “Operation Trail Dust.” Ranch Hand involved spraying an estimated 20 million United States gallons of defoliants and herbicides over rural areas of South Vietnam in an attempt to deprive the Viet Cong of food and vegetation cover. Nearly 20,000 sorties were flown between 1961 and 1971.

It’s hard to say if the government knew the consequences of the chemicals that were used. It’s possible that the chemicals were thought to just kill vegetation, and not to hurt people. The people involved were known as Ranch Handers. I seriously doubt that at some point they didn’t wonder if what they were doing could possibly be harmful to the people they were spraying it on or near. Nevertheless, the “Ranch Handers” had a motto, “Only you can prevent a forest.” It was a take on the popular United States Forest Service poster slogan of Smokey Bear. During the ten years of spraying, over 5 million acres of forest and 500,000 acres of crops were heavily damaged or destroyed. Around 20% of the forests of South Vietnam were sprayed at least once.

The herbicides were sprayed by the United States Air Force flying C-123s using the call sign “Hades.” The planes were fitted with specially developed spray tanks with a capacity of 1,000 United States gallons of herbicides. A plane sprayed a swath of land that was ½ mile wide and 10 miles long in about 4½ minutes, at a rate of about 3 United States gallons per acre. Sorties usually consisted of three to five airplanes flying side by side, and 95% of the herbicides and defoliants used in the war were sprayed by the United States Air Force as part of Operation Ranch Hand. The remaining 5% were sprayed by the United States Chemical Corps, other military branches, and the Republic of Vietnam using hand sprayers, spray trucks, helicopters and boats, primarily around United States military installations…meaning that the majority of the chemicals were exposed to the Untied States Military. Many of the Vietnam veterans have felt betrayed by their own government. Many have felt that the government was well aware of the dangers of the chemicals they were spraying. I don’t know if they knew or not, but it seems like they should have suspected something. Years later, the effects of Agent Orange are well known and it was vicious.

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