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 20 million gallons of various herbicides over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos from 1961 to 1971. Agent Orange, which contained the deadly chemical dioxin, was the most commonly used herbicide. It was later proven to cause serious health issues—including cancer, birth defects, rashes and severe psychological and neurological problems—among the Vietnamese people as well as among returning U.S. servicemen and their families.
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.
What Is Agent Orange?
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—manufactured by Monsanto, Dow Chemical and other companies—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 slightly different mixtures, sometimes referred to as Agent Orange I, Agent Orange II, Agent Orange III and “Super Orange.”
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.
Dioxin in Agent Orange
In addition to Agent Orange’s active ingredients, which caused plants to “defoliate” or lose their leaves, Agent Orange contained significant amounts 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 from trash incineration; burning gas, oil and coal; cigarette smoking and in different manufacturing processes such as bleaching. The TCDD found in Agent Orange is the most dangerous of all dioxins.
Effects of Agent Orange
Because Agent Orange (and other Vietnam-era herbicides) contained dioxin in the form of TCDD, it had immediate and long-term effects.
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Dioxin is a highly persistent chemical compound that lasts for many years in the environment, particularly in soil, lake and river sediments and in the food chain. Dioxin accumulates in fatty tissue in the bodies of fish, birds and other animals. Most human exposure is through foods such as meats, poultry, dairy products, eggs, shellfish and fish.
Studies done on laboratory animals have proven that dioxin is highly toxic even in minute doses. It is universally known to be a carcinogen (a cancer-causing agent).
Short-term exposure to dioxin can cause darkening of the skin, liver problems and a severe acne-like skin disease called chloracne. Additionally, dioxin is linked to type 2 diabetes, immune system dysfunction, nerve disorders, muscular dysfunction, hormone disruption and heart disease.
Developing fetuses are particularly sensitive to dioxin, which is also linked to miscarriages, spina bifida and other problems with fetal brain and nervous system development.
Veteran Health Issues and Legal Battle
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 1988, Dr. James Clary, an Air Force researcher associated with Operation Ranch Hand, wrote to Senator Tom Daschle, “When we initiated the herbicide program in the 1960s, we were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide. However, because the material was to be used on the enemy, none of us were overly concerned. We never considered a scenario in which our own personnel would become contaminated with the herbicide.”
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 the settlement 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 Agent Orange and other herbicides (including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, soft tissue sarcomas and chloracne) be treated as the result of wartime service. This helped codify the VA’s response to veterans with conditions related to their exposure to Agent Orange.
Legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam
In addition to the massive environmental devastation 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 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, causing outrage among Vietnamese victims of Operation Ranch Hand and U.S. veterans alike.
Fred A. Wilcox, author of Scorched Earth: Legacies of Chemical Warfare in Vietnam, told the Vietnamese news source VN Express International, “The U.S. government refuses to compensate Vietnamese victims of chemical warfare because to do so would mean admitting that the U.S. committed war crimes in Vietnam. This would open the door to lawsuits that would cost the government billions of dollars.”
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Report to the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs on the Association Between Adverse Health Effects and Exposure to Agent Orange. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Spectre orange. The Guardian.
Out of sight, out of mind: Vietnam’s forgotten Agent Orange victims. VN Express International.
Dioxins and their effects on human health. World Health Organization.
Dioxins. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.