Since the Vietnam War, the US has been involved in controversy over the use of herbicides. The dispute revolves around using herbicides in Vietnam and the health concerns connected with herbicide exposure, notably Agent Orange and its component dioxin or TCDD. In this article, we’ll take a brief glimpse at the history of agent orange and its effects on the environment.
What Is Agent Orange?
Agent Orange is an herbicide employed by the US military during the Vietnam War to destroy forest cover and plant crops to combat the guerrilla tactics employed by the North Vietnamese military and the VietCong.
The herbicide mainly contains three components: 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and 2,4-dichlorophenoxybutyric acid (2,4-DB), which targets vegetation and slows its growth. The other component is 2,4-dichlorophenoxyethanol (2,4-DE), a hardier solvent that kills undergrowth. Agent Orange is one of the most deadly chemicals in the world, and for this reason, many of its effects on the environment are still being felt today.
Agent Orange Development and Testing
Around the turn of this century, scientists did the first tests to see how chemicals could control plant growth. The primary purpose of these early chemicals was to kill weeds competing for crop nutrients and sunlight (NAS, 1974; Buckingham, 1982).
It wasn’t until the 1940s when agricultural chemical research produced a variety of synthetic chemicals capable of controlling or inhibiting plant growth.
Agent Orange and the Vietnam War Era
Around 19 million herbicides, including 11 million gallons of Agent Orange, were sprayed by the United States military over the countryside in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos during the Vietnam War.
The effort, codenamed Operation Ranch Hand, attempted to eradicate vegetation where the Viet Cong hid, and clear areas near American outposts to avoid surprise assaults.
Agent Orange rained from helicopters and C-123 planes over farmland, rice fields, waterways, people, and animals between 1962 and 1971. Riverboats, vehicles, and troops carrying backpack tanks sprayed this substance throughout the area.
Legacy Left by Agent Orange
In addition to wreaking havoc on the environment to a massive degree, the defoliation program carried out by the United States in Vietnam reportedly caused the deaths and maiming of approximately 400,000 Vietnamese citizens as a direct result of their exposure to Agent Orange.
In addition, Vietnam estimates that half a million children have been born with severe birth deformities and that up to two million people have cancer or other illnesses resulting from Agent Orange exposure.
Agent Orange Side Effects to Exposure
Some diseases and their symptoms are strongly associated with Agent Orange exposure. Scientists and researchers consider the following Agent Orange adverse effects:
- AL Amyloidosis
- Bladder Cancer
- Chronic B-cell Leukemias
- Diabetes Mellitus Type 2
- Hodgkin’s disease
- Ischemic Heart Disease
- Monoclonal Gammopathy of Undetermined Significance
- Multiple Myeloma
- Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Parkinson’s-like Symptoms
- Peripheral Neuropathy
- Porphyria Cutanea Tarda
- Prostate Cancer
- Respiratory Cancer
- Soft Tissue Sarcomas
Consequences of Agent Orange on the Environment
Agent Orange was used at around 20 times the amount authorized by the manufacturer for eradicating vegetation. It resulted in the defoliation of Millions of acres of woodland and cropland. Large swaths of that land are still damaged and unproductive. Agent Orange’s dioxin chemical stays hazardous in the soil for decades.
Often, the quantity of dioxin detected was much below the Vietnamese government’s limits. However, certain soils at three old military facilities have very high levels of dioxin. These chemical “hot spots” are now being cleaned up to prevent dioxin from entering the food chain and harming adults and children in the surrounding communities.
And, of course, there is a vast amount of dioxin TCDD carried off the land and into waterways, including wetlands, marshes, rivers, lakes, and ponds. The poison settled in the sediments, where bottom-dwelling fish and shrimp consumed it—absorbed by the fats of sea creatures, the toxins spread to the aquatic food chain. Most polluted places have banned fishing, but people usually don’t care about these rules. Because of this, the toxins ends up on the plates of people across Vietnam.
Half Life of Agent Orange in the Body and the Environment
Dioxin’s half-life varies on its location. The half-life in human bodies is 11–15 years; however, it may reach 20 years. The half-life in the environment depends on the kind of soil and the penetration level. The sun breaks down dioxin, so depending on the conditions, it will stick around on the surface of leaves and soil for 1–3 years. Dioxin may have a half-life of more than 100 years if it is buried or leached under the surface or deep in the sediment of rivers and other bodies of water.
The Banning of Agent Orange
After its usage in the 1960s, the United States prohibited Agent Orange in 1971. They sent the leftover supplies to Johnston Atoll, a U.S.-controlled island roughly 700 miles southeast of Hawaii, where they were destroyed in 1978. There is now no Agent Orange in Vietnam or elsewhere.
Most agree that Agent Orange was sprayed on the Vietnamese landscape to destroy rice paddies and rainforest in an attempt to hide the movement of troops from enemy eyes and prep the ground for American and allied soldiers and tanks. However, that chemical turned out to be highly deadly to many humans, animals, and plants. It was so dangerous that it caused the ruin of hundreds of acres of land, leaving many farmers without suitable land for farming. Both the environment and local communities still face the consequences of the environmental effecs of agent orange.
What is less clear today is Agent Orange’s lasting impact on not only the environment but the long-term impact on the residents in the area. Thousands of people were killed or sickened by Agent Orange; other plants were introduced to the site to detoxify the victims from the chemicals. Unfortunately, none of the plants were proven effective, and the inhabitants were still dealing with the environmental effects of Agent Orange today. Agent Orange is one of the most controversial things in American history.