Behind Laos's yellow rain and tears

A controversial Radiolab episode opens old wounds and raises countless questions for Minnesota's Hmong

Seeley told Meselson how, after hibernating, North American bees take "cleansing flights," where they swarm from the hive and defecate en masse. But Seeley wasn't sure if Southeast Asian honeybees did the same thing. So in March 1984, Meselson and Seeley took a trip to Thailand to try to investigate the phenomenon.

Fred, the public health guy from Ban Vinai, joined them for part of the trip as a guide and translator. One day, he remembers, the team spread out sheets of paper in concentric circles around a hive in Khao Yai National Park, a forest north of Bangkok.

"Sure enough, in the morning, the bees pooped en masse, and I watched it land on the sheets," Fred says. "I stood there and watched yellow rain."

Eng Yang and his niece, Kao Kalia Yang, at St. Paul's Hmongtown Marketplace
Mark N. Kartarik
Eng Yang and his niece, Kao Kalia Yang, at St. Paul's Hmongtown Marketplace
This Hmong boy reported that his stomach rash was a result of yellow rain
courtesy of Fred
This Hmong boy reported that his stomach rash was a result of yellow rain

But then he catches himself. "At least what they were saying was yellow rain."

Meselson recalls two other incidents during the trip when the team got caught in feces showers. During one, they were driving when a hive in front of them "kind of changed color," Meselson says. Seeley had his bee gear on and watched, but Meselson took cover in the car.

"We could actually hear these spots hitting the metal roof of the Land Rover," Meselson says.

The scientists had proven that Southeast Asian bees also take cleansing flights. They didn't think the bees were pooping out toxins, though. They thought that Mirocha had been wrong.

Meselson speculated that Mirocha could have easily contaminated the samples. His lab at the U trafficked in high quantities of these same toxins, and he was testing for tiny amounts of it.

"To do that work you have to be sure that your lab is very, very clean," Meselson says. "And preferably that it's a lab that has never seen those very same substances."

As yellow rain became an increasingly bigger issue, more and more labs around the world began testing samples. And none of them found any poison.

Other pieces of the case had started breaking down too. Deeper analyses of the pollen showed that it was from plants native to Southeast Asia, and from a wide variety of them — meaning that it was almost certainly natural in origin.

As Meselson looked into it more, he discovered that a similar scenario had unfolded before, in a province in China. In 1974, the area had suffered a large earthquake, and in its wake, Chinese villagers reported mysterious yellow spots, which they thought were poisonous. But when a professor took samples of these spots, he discovered that they were full of pollen.

"They were frightened by this and simply didn't recognize what it was, even though they had lived there for generations," Meselson says. "If you have a population under stress, you can understand how they can attribute their illness to something like this happening that they don't understand."

Meselson believes that's what happened to the Hmong.

"There's not a single shred of objective evidence," Meselson says today. "Deep inside the United States government I think they knew it was a mistake, but unfortunately they have never admitted it."


Mirocha knows Meselson and the honeybee theory well. But he disagrees that it debunks the stories of toxic yellow rain.

"The honeybee fecal matter explanation is a red herring," Mirocha says. "If the Hmong people were told that they were not really the victims of chemical warfare, then that is nonsense."

Mirocha stands by his initial findings, and insists that his lab procedures were excellent. Two years after the first analysis, his lab participated in a trichothecene testing trial, and was one of the few labs involved in the experiment that produced fully accurate results.

Furthermore, recently declassified government data confirms that all of the environmental controls Mirocha tested came back negative — in other words, he didn't find false positives in the toxin-free samples.

Mirocha's analyses and methodology had been "put through the wringer" and come out intact, said Gary Crocker, the State Department's senior intelligence officer at the time, in a 1991 New Yorker article on yellow rain. Crocker added, "One thing I can say about Dr. Mirocha is that he is not involved in politics. He's a pure scientist."

Crocker also readily admitted that "an awful lot of our environmental samples were nothing but bee spots," which is in fact what Meselson showed.

But not all of them were. Recent research by professors from Princeton and George Washington University, who concluded that chemical weapons were likely used against the Hmong, found that some of the government's environmental samples didn't contain any pollen — meaning they weren't bee droppings.

Mirocha sees an additional oversight. Meselson and Seeley "did very good work" with their honeybee research, he says. "That article came out as the first account of mass honeybee defecation."

Then Mirocha shakes his head. "But the natives had known this for hundreds of years!"

From Mirocha's perspective, this lack of consideration of local knowledge was just one way the original controversy was unfair to the Hmong.

"I believed what was going on over there. It would be stupid for me not to, because it's just a no-brainer," Mirocha says. "People are being killed. People are dying. And they're not lying."

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15 comments
anniegreen852
anniegreen852

This is awful! We need to take care of our world.

Annie

www.shuttersnshades.com.au

garyplumber25
garyplumber25

All I keep thinking is the Hmong would have noticed and mentioned the bees in their account of yellow rain. How high do the bees fly during the cleansing flight? To high to see?

ksablug
ksablug

The reason every party is doing everything it can to censor this inhumane aggression against the Hmong is that the Hmong had been used as pawns for such parties to test their weapons, including chemical ones. And when evidences were found, everybody has an obligation to reverse the findings. However, no matter what scientists and powerful parties may argue, it is without doubt that the Hmong had been through a period of very inhumane chemical warfare. If it were not the Hmong, the world would have done something about it, but since it were the Hmong, it is nobody's business.  

tomak2010
tomak2010

My late dad said, "yellow rain" did fall from the sky when he was fighting the Vietcong and Pathet Lao near the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Years later, my father died from hemorrhage.

I know Uncle Eng Yang and the Yang family, especially Uncle Soua. I grew up very close to the Yang family in the Ban Vinai camp. He and his brothers DIDN'T fight during the Vietnam War.  Their dad paid other villagers' sons to fight in placement of the sons. However, Eng did work or volunteer, as radio operator and security enforcer, for General Vang Pao's POST-WAR cause and Vue Mai and crossed the Thai-Lao border numerous times (est. roughly from 1975 to 1985). Was there chemical weapon/yellow rain used in the jungle or in Hmong villages during that time? The answer is: (though the US no longer involved) YES--there were chemical dropped on the Freedom fighters and Hmong escapees who took refuge in the jungle. The yellow rain came. The Hmong did experience this horrible act.  After the "yellow rain" most of them could not functional mentally or physically and left to die in the jungle and those with minor effects escaped to the camp. In the Ban Vinai Camp, some of them became mentally ill, some experienced strokes/hemorrhage, lung issues, and others died unexplained deaths. You just knew something strange's going on. Not even the shaman in our Section 3 Quarter 30 could save their souls. To say that the "yellow stuff" is bee excrement is politically motivated and hurtful.  It's very shameful to not recognize something that did happen to the Hmong. The CIA/State Department needs to declassified these information. The Russian needs to show responsibility and show the world the data, the T2 toxins, they sold to the Vietnamese government. 

lex.lee02
lex.lee02

carolinakoi. so...you're point is: Mr. Yang should consult with his past mentors/leaders if the topic is about yellow rain?? r.e.a.l.l.y.? LOL i don't want to sound like Robert Krulwich/ Radio Lab but, who'd want to listen about what hmong leaders think when the topic is about Yellow Rain and it's survivors????

 

I'll give you an idea, open up a blog and please carefully plan what you're going to say about Yellow Rain. And make sure you talk to your mentors or if you prefer, your leaders, about what happened during the war and of Yellow Rain. Remember, blogs are your only option because no is interviewing you if you are going to consult to your leaders and mentors first. Then why not just interview your leader and or mentor instead. A topic like yours when it doesn't suits any intrest. I might come and check your blog when I feel like I want to learn something about a hmong leader but make sure you carefully get every fact right. :)

yangmerlinda
yangmerlinda

Personally, I think that Mr. Yang has done his part, he has experinced Yellow Rain as a hmong, so I think he should be able to talk about it freely. I can understand why you might be concern, but I believe that in stating his experince, so honestly and clearly, we understood his message.  His message is that Yellow Rain has occured and during the time many hmong died. Whether or not, Yellow rain was chemical used for genocide or bee feces, Eng Yang's take home message is that Yellow Rain is forever memory, a memory of the war, a memory of the deaths of Hmong, and a memory of life before he came to US.

carolinakoi
carolinakoi

As a young refugee, I remember very well about this story being the topic of discussion in BanViNai Refugee.  As a Hmong, this story is not a story that Kao Kalia Yang nor Eng Yang can tell alone.  This is a story has many deep secrets.  Story such as this should have been more carefully thought and plan in telling the many sides of it.  There is even an documentary completed by National Public Radio and aired on television many years ago.  The Hmong elders/leaders who were directly involved in this story should have been consulted, particularly, the formers leaders of BanViNai Refugee camp during that time.  Evidences have been collected since late 1979s to mid 1980s.  I am very suprised that Eng Yang singly chosen to tell this story without consulting his past mentors/leaders.  This clearly show a poor planning on Eng Yang's part.  Just know that "Yellow Rain" is not a topic that the United States government does not want to deal with.  There is a book coming in Spring 2013 that will dscuss a little about this so called "Yellow Rain."  But for the future, evidences and people who were involved should be consulted and a careful planning needs to be thought out if we are going to have the world listen to our story. 

ksablug
ksablug

Dr. Mirocha's lab work said it all. 

bvang6974
bvang6974

I cried after reading this story, especially the part about how rude and inconsiderate the Radiolab folks were to the Mr. Yang. Fortunately, not all of the Hmong people had to deal with Yellow Rain as they fought WITH the United States, however for those who did have to experience Yellow Rain are not viewed as liars and uneducated people.  There are many secrets the United States does not want to reveal to their people about their role in the Secret War in Laos.

Paul
Paul

I would just like to clarify that the RadioLab folks had access to the work conducted by the scientists from Princeton and GWU before they ever went to interview Mr. Yang.  They never told their audience that there were any scientific views that cast doubt on Meselson's theories.  And they happily accepted the assumption that Dr. Mirocha's work was substandard in some way.  Did they ever even speak to him?  These are the attitudes and practices that made them feel comfortable treating Mr. Yang and his testimony the way they did.  If they'd just done their homework and been a little less eager to tell a story about Reagan, "alleged toxins," and bee poop, they might have avoided all of this.

yangmerlinda
yangmerlinda

Thank you for the insights and perspectives from each sides, this has helped clear up many unanswered-questions for me. You have done a great job of journalism here! WELL DONE

ConstantReader
ConstantReader

"What proof would be enough?" he asks. "Well to me, the personal, first-hand information from the Hmong people is enough."

 

Said no Scientist Ever. 

bvang6974
bvang6974

 @carolinakoi

 I am sorry to have to say that if a Hmong person experienced something, I am not going to doubt them and say, You never experienced this, maybe you were hallucinating or something.  THAT IS JUST WRONG.  This is similar to any time atrocities happen to a population and everybody chooses to close their eyes instead of seeing the truth.  Nobody asked the Japanese Americans to be interned in camps, but they were, and are we going to discount their horrific memories of being put there.  Nobody asked the millions of Jews who were killed in the Holocaust if they wanted genocide to happen to their people, but if we were to discount the fact that it happened, then we are turning a blind eye on truth, history, and facts. 

 

The U.S. gov't recuited the Hmong to help fight their war in SE Asia. This turned the Hmong into enemies of the state and of their allies, including China and the Russians. Chemical warfare was used in SE Asia against the Hmong.  Even if no one will admit it, doesn't mean it's not truthful, factual, and part of our history.

swingbatter
swingbatter

 @Paul They did do their homework, they did say it is one theory. What I took away from the episode is not that Krulwich was rude but that they could not have been prepared for this kind of overreaction. "So we talked to a scientist who thinks A, and how would you answer that considering B" is not rude and it's not a crime, it's something that the interviewee can calmly debunk. Instead -- complete meltdown, hysterics, THEY DID NOT JUST BELIEVE EVERYTHING WE SAY, HOW RUDE.

 

Listening to this episode I thought Ms Yang was acting irrationally, and that was it. Nothing was dictated to her and instead of breaking out in tears she could have responded with what is said here -- "that is just one opinion, and I'll have you know that we distinctly saw XYZ, and we can back this up with A,B and C." Can't back it up? Shrug and understand that people want evidence. 

Paul
Paul

 @swingbatter  @Paul 

Exactly where in the RadioLab piece do they offer any evidence to contradict the bee dung theory?  Exactly where in the piece do they do anything to suggest that the bee dung theory is anything other than the best sceintific explanation for the yellow rain phenomenon?  They had evidence in hand in the form of reviewsand studies by Jonathan Tucker and the aforementioned scientists from GWU and Princeton. 

See, for example, an article in “Politics & the Life Sciences,” 24 August 2007, starting on page 24. (Note this research is more than 25 years newer than Meselson's and used a wide variety of new evidence, including “8,529 pages of United States government documents, declassified . . .and released through a Freedom of Information Act request, including medical records, laboratory reports, diplomatic communications, internal memos, and protocols originating primarily from the Armed Forces Medical Intelligence Center. . .and interviews with 48 individuals with expert knowledge related to Yellow Rain, including 20 who were directly involved in investigating allegations. . .”

A few of the many conclusions in this paper: “Between 1979 and 1982, refugee reports of attacks were consistent with other intelligence data, including known battles and flight paths of aircraft, more than 60 percent of the time. . . Clinical complaints and findings among self-described victims and detailed refugee accounts of attacks were sufficiently similar in Laos, Cambodia, and Afghanistan to suggest a key common factor, most plausibly a Soviet link, in influence and support of direct operational involvement. . .Clinical complaints and findings of alleged victims as documented by photographs, medical records, autopsy results, and third-hand accounts are consistent with mass simultaneous poisoning and not with any known natural disease endemic to Laos, Cambodia, or Afghanistan. . .Approximately 75 percent of alleged attacks involved seeing or hearing a helicopter or airplane, followed by seeing or smelling a gas or powder fall to the ground. . .”

If, in the wake of this and other evidence, including Mirocha's, that the bee crap theory is insufficient to describe what happened,  why the hard sell over the course of the show?  Why no inclusion of competing theories, even for a moment?  If the show isn't about journalism or about science, then fine.  But if it is, then what RadioLab did is simply wrong, regardless of the Yangs' reaction to their interviewers.  My argument has nothing to do with emotion.

 
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