Agent Orange, Vietnam War, Herbicide Orange
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Introduction

Agent Orange was a powerful herbicide used by U.S. military forces during the Vietnam War to eliminate forest cover and crops for North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops. The U.S. program, codenamed Operation Ranch Hand, sprayed more than 19 million gallons of various herbicides over Vietnam from 1961 to 1971. Agent Orange, which contained the chemical dioxin, was the most commonly used herbicide. It was later revealed to cause serious health issues—including tumors, birth defects, rashes, psychological symptoms and cancer—among the Vietnamese people as well as among returning U.S. servicemen and their families.

During the Vietnam War, the U.S military engaged in an aggressive program of chemical warfare codenamed Operation Ranch Hand.

From 1961 to 1971, the U.S. military sprayed a range of herbicides across more than 4.5 million acres of Vietnam to destroy the forest cover and food crops used by enemy North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops.

U.S. aircraft were deployed to douse roads, rivers, canals, rice paddies and farmland with powerful mixtures of herbicides. During this process, crops and water sources used by the non-combatant native population of South Vietnam were also hit.

In all, American forces used more than 20 million gallons of herbicides in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia during the years of Operation Ranch Hand. Herbicides were also sprayed from trucks and hand-sprayers around U.S. military bases.

Some military personnel during the Vietnam War era joked that “Only you can prevent a forest,” a twist on the U.S. Forest Service’s popular fire-fighting campaign featuring Smokey the Bear.

The various herbicides used during Operation Ranch Hand were referred to by the colored marks on the 55-gallon drums in which the chemicals were shipped and stored.

In addition to Agent Orange, the U.S. military used herbicides named Agent Pink, Agent Green, Agent Purple, Agent White and Agent Blue. Each of these had different chemical chemical additives in varying strengths.

Agent Orange was the most widely used herbicide in Vietnam, and the most potent. It was available in two slightly different mixtures, sometimes referred to as Agent Orange I and Agent Orange II.

More than 13 million gallons of Agent Orange was used in Vietnam, or almost two-thirds of the total amount of herbicides used during the entire Vietnam War.

In addition to Agent Orange’s active ingredients, which caused plants to “defoliate” or lose their leaves, Agent Orange contained significant amounts of of 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, often called TCDD, a type of dioxin.

Dioxin was not intentionally added to Agent Orange; rather, dioxin is a byproduct that’s produced during the manufacturing of herbicides. It was found in varying concentrations in all the different herbicides used in Vietnam.

Dioxins are also created by burning certain wastes, in diesel exhaust and in numerous manufacturing processes. TCDD is the most dangerous of all dioxins and is classified as a cancer-causing agent by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Studies done on laboratory animals have proven that dioxin is highly toxic even in minute doses. Human exposure to the chemical could be associated with serious health issues such as muscular dysfunction, inflammation, birth defects, nervous system disorders and even the development of various cancers.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Agent Orange contained “minute traces” Through studies done on laboratory animals, dioxin has been shown to be highly toxic even in minute doses; human exposure to the chemical could be associated with serious health issues such as muscular dysfunction, inflammation, birth defects, nervous system disorders and even the development of various cancers.

Questions regarding Agent Orange arose in the United States after an increasing number of returning Vietnam veterans and their families began to report a range of afflictions, including rashes and other skin irritations, miscarriages, psychological symptoms, Type-2 diabetes, birth defects in children and cancers such as Hodgkin’s disease, prostate cancer and leukemia.

In 1979, a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of 2.4 million veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange during their service in Vietnam. Five years later, in an out-of-court-settlement, seven large chemical companies that manufactured the herbicide agreed to pay $180 million in compensation to the veterans or their next of kin. Various challenges to the settlement followed, including lawsuits filed by some 300 veterans, before the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed it in 1988. By that time, the settlement had risen to some $240 million including interest. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Agent Orange Act, which mandated that some diseases associated with defoliants (including non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas, soft tissue sarcomas and chloracne) be treated as the result of wartime service and helped codify the VA’s response to veterans with conditions related to their exposure to Agent Orange.

In addition to the massive environmental impact of the U.S. defoliation program in Vietnam, that nation has reported that some 400,000 people were killed or maimed as a result of exposure to herbicides like Agent Orange. In addition, Vietnam claims half a million children have been born with serious birth defects, while as many 2 million people are suffering from cancer or other illness caused by Agent Orange.

In 2004, a group of Vietnamese citizens filed a class-action lawsuit against more than 30 chemical companies, including the same ones that settled with the U.S. veterans in 1984. The suit, which sought billions of dollars worth of damages, claimed that Agent Orange and its poisonous effects left a legacy of health problems and that its use constituted a violation of international law. In March 2005, a federal judge in Brooklyn, New York, dismissed the suit; another U.S. court rejected a final appeal in 2008.