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What Happened To People Who Came Into Contact With Agent Orange During The Vietnam War?

The staggering death toll from the Vietnam War continues to rise - not from combat, since the war technically ended in 1975, but from the side effects of Agent Orange. Agent Orange was one of several toxic herbicides used by the US government during the Vietnam War to clear Southeast Asian jungles of foliage cover, but its chemical composition has had long-term consequences.

War veterans, Vietnamese citizens, and descendants from all involved parties continue to suffer from deadly health conditions and deformities as a result of poison exposure, and both the landscape and the food chain have yet to recover from the long-lasting residuals of leaching toxins. Agent Orange was a military tactic, but it has proven to be more of a backfiring torture method than anything else.

In 1976, the UN's Environmental Modification Convention banned "any technique for changing the composition of structure of the Earth's biota," which meant they strictly forbade herbicidal warfare. Even so, both the US and Vietnamese governments have been slow to acknowledge the Agent Orange problem or offer reparations for the widespread damage caused by their herbicidal strategy, despite reports that millions of people continue to be affected.

But slowly, through scientific studies and activism championed by veterans and their descendants, the governments have begun working to create policies for both health care and environmental cleanup. Agent Orange is gone, but it is still very much alive for many unfortunate victims.

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  • Agent Orange Was Part Of A Larger Plan To Destroy The Southeast Asian Jungle
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Agent Orange Was Part Of A Larger Plan To Destroy The Southeast Asian Jungle

    Through operations nicknamed Ranch Hand and Trail Dust, the US military released Agent Orange over the Vietnamese jungles to prevent Viet Cong militants from taking cover in the lush, dangerous landscape. They also wanted to destroy Vietnamese crops and keep areas near US bases safe. Operation Ranch Hand oversaw the development of chemicals to kill off Vietnamese flora. Operation Trail Dust referred to the US Air Force's collective poison-dropping.

    Modeled on a British program used against Chinese communists in Malaysia during the 1950s and 1960s, Operation Ranch Hand developed several herbicides, many of which contained two key chemical components: 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T). Agent Orange - the herbicide most widely used - contained both chemicals. The 2,4,5-T in Agent Orange included a dioxin called 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, or TCDD, one of the most destructive toxins.

  • Agent Orange Wasn't Orange, But  Part Of The Can It Came In Was
    Photo: US Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Agent Orange Wasn't Orange, But Part Of The Can It Came In Was

    The chemical agents used by the US military during the Vietnam War all got colorful names. Agent Orange was one in a rainbow-nicknamed array of toxins including Agents Blue, Purple, Pink, White, and Green. Agent Orange got its name from the color of the stripe on its 55-gallon drum. Agent Blue was used to kill grass and other low-to-the-ground plants, while Agents White and Orange proved most effective against "broadleaf plants and woody shrubs and trees."

    During Operation Ranch Hand - which ran from 1962 to 1971 - the US military dropped almost 18.5 million gallons of herbicides. Beginning around 1965, Agent Orange became the poison of choice.

  • US Soldiers Bathed In Drums That Once Held Agent Orange
    Photo: Joe Sipala / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    US Soldiers Bathed In Drums That Once Held Agent Orange

    US troops in Vietnam experienced exposure to Agent Orange in several ways. The Air Force dropped gallons of Agent Orange via airplanes and trucks all over the countryside; they also spread the chemical on the outskirts of military bases. When one of the big 55-gallon drums was empty, it might have been reused as a shower or even as a barbecue pit. The drums also came in handy for storing food and other supplies.

    But no matter how much you try to clean a receptacle, residual toxins are hard to fully erase, particularly if they've leached into other materials. The traces may have seemed imperceptible at the time, but the leftover poison resin did eventually leave its mark.

  • Vietnam Veterans Began Experiencing Health Problems Soon After Returning To The US
    Photo: US Army Operations in Vietnam R.W. Trewyn, Ph.D. / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Vietnam Veterans Began Experiencing Health Problems Soon After Returning To The US

    US military veterans questioned the role Agent Orange played in their later health problems. One vet, Clifford Anderson, reported he received a colitis diagnosis during the 1980s, years after he left Vietnam. Anderson eventually had to have his colon removed - according to his doctor, it was "battleship gray" when they removed it. Anderson also suffered "poor circulation, bleeding ulcers on his ankles, blood clots, eye disease, and now a rare cancer that leaves small tumors on the inside of his intestines," all of which he attributed to Agent Orange.

    Anderson is not alone. A former Vietnam War medic was exposed to Agent Orange in 1969; an injury to his knee in 1978 apparently triggered the release of latent toxins in his body. Soon after he tore his meniscus, he started showing symptoms of peripheral neuropathy. But since this was not listed as one of the diseases attributed to Agent Orange at the time, he didn't meet the Department of Veterans Affairs eligibility requirements for aid.

  • The Dioxins In Agent Orange Caused Short- And Long-Term Side Effects

    Immediate exposure to the toxic chemicals in Agent Orange caused minor health issues, including changes to skin color, liver problems, and acne-like lesions called chloracne. When herbicides were sprayed, soldiers emerged from the mist covered in chemicals. Within days, they might suffer gastrointestinal problems.

    Longer term, dioxins have been linked to several kinds of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and Parkinson's, among other nerve disorders.

  • The Government Initially Denied Agent Orange Caused Health Problems
    Photo: Kris Roberts / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Government Initially Denied Agent Orange Caused Health Problems

    In 1974, the Department of Defense and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issued a report on the effects of herbicides used in South Vietnam. They concluded there was:

    ... no clear evidence of direct damage to human health from herbicides, "no conclusive evidence" linking the defoliants with human birth defects, and no proof of permanent soil damage. The committee determined soils were capable of sustaining growth as soon as six weeks after spraying and that a year after spraying the effects on plant growth were "undetectable."

    The vice president of the NAS, Dr. George Kistiakowsky, criticized the report, telling the media it "seriously underestimated the damage and is too casual about the possible ill effects on humans." It wasn't until the 1990s that the Department of Veterans Affairs began compensating veterans for health conditions attributed to Agent Orange exposure.