Le Trung Hong Phuc, a 9-year-old from Vietnam, was born with disabilities, presumably due to his parents’ exposure to Agent Orange. Photo: AP Photo/Maika Elan
Named for the orange-striped barrels in which it was shipped, Agent Orange is an herbicide that the U.S. military used during the Vietnam War to destroy enemy food crops and kill jungle vegetation that concealed North Vietnamese forces. Beginning in 1961, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces sprayed 20 million gallons of it and other herbicides over vast areas of South Vietnam and parts of Laos and Cambodia. The spraying denuded more than 8,600 square miles of jungle and cropland. The U.S. military stopped using Agent Orange in 1971 after the National Institutes of Health found that it contained a chemical contaminant that caused birth defects in lab animals. By then, hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers and millions of Vietnamese civilians had been in contact with the stuff, many of them so oblivious to its dangers that they bathed in water stored in the empty barrels.
How toxic is it?
Agent Orange contained the dioxin TCDD, one of the most toxic chemicals ever manufactured. Dioxin remains in the soil and in the body for decades, and studies have linked it to numerous cancers and birth defects, as well as neurological illnesses like Parkinson’s disease. “It has widespread effects in nearly every vertebrate species at nearly every stage of development,” said Dr. Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. During the war, Vietnamese doctors began delivering babies born with no limbs, no eyes, or even no brain. Even now, said Vietnamese obstetrician Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong, the breast milk of mothers in areas sprayed with Agent Orange 40 years ago contains dangerously elevated levels of dioxin. “It is a cruel destroyer of all life in my country,” she said.
How many Vietnamese are affected?
Between 2.1 million and 4.8 million Vietnamese were exposed to dioxin during the war, according to the American Public Health Association, but it’s unknown how many of their children have ailments resulting from that exposure. Dioxin has been associated with human birth defects, but no large-scale study has proved that it causes them; activists say that is only because no such study has been done. What is clear, though, is that the rate of birth defects in Vietnam has quadrupled since the war, and that most of them occur where Agent Orange was sprayed or stored. Vietnamese scientists blame dioxin contamination for a broad range of birth defects, from blood disorders to clubfeet.
What is the U.S. stance?
The U.S. government has never acknowledged a link between Agent Orange and illness in the Vietnamese population.