A Defoliant of Destruction: Agent Orange

From cancer to cerebral palsy, the effects of Agent Orange linger for veterans and Vietnamese civilians alike.

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In the bustle of Ho Chi Minh City, a maternity hospital called Peace Village bears the dangerous inheritance of the Vietnam War. Doctors at the center care for children born with deformities. They believe that these defects are the result of maternal exposure to traces of the U.S.-deployed Agent Orange.

Agent Orange was an herbicide used by the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War to clear the dense forests that protected opposing communist Viet Cong soldiers. Huge plumes of dusty bright orange gas trailed behind fighter planes; in their wake, thick forests were reduced to naked trees and contaminated soil, exposing the Viet Cong. The North Vietnamese saw their agricultural supply diminish. They were not the only ones to face the consequences of Agent Orange; the U.S. soldiers dispensing Agent Orange and engaging in combat on the herbicide-treated ground discovered decades later that they had not been spared from the defoliant’s devastating biological damages.

Agent Orange was initially manufactured by the Monsanto Company, after which Monsanto, the Dow Chemical Company, and a number of other companies mass produced the herbicide at the request of the government under the U.S. Defense Production Act of 1950. The defoliant was then used by the American military at 20 times the concentration suggested by manufacturers.

Agent Orange has been reported to cause a slew of health issues in soldiers and Vietnamese residents, most of which are linked to a toxic contaminant in some batches of Agent Orange: tetrachlorodibenzodioxin (TCDD). TCDD is a dioxin, a family of compounds that are persistent environmental pollutants. Traces of dioxins are found everywhere, and exposure to concentrated levels of dioxins can severely damage human health.

In U.S. soldiers, Agent Orange has been found to increase susceptibility to a number of cancers, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, prostate cancer, and multiple myeloma. In fact, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified TCDD as a known human carcinogen, a category of substances for which there is sufficient and convincing evidence of carcinogenicity (the ability to cause or increase the presence of cancer). Other health issues linked with the dioxin include Parkinson’s disease, ischemic heart disease, and even diabetes.

Following decades of legal battles, American veterans of the Vietnam War and their families will be able to receive greater compensation from the U.S. government. The Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act began processing on January 1, 2023. The PACT Act adds to the list of conditions caused by military service for which veterans can have their healthcare costs covered. One of the substances mentioned in the PACT Act is Agent Orange.

The legislation also provides veterans with toxic exposure screenings every five years, increases research conducted on veterans who served in select conflicts or regions, and allows the construction of over 30 new healthcare facilities to improve veteran healthcare. According to Military Times, the healthcare coverage offered by the legislation will benefit roughly 800,000 veterans.

The PACT Act includes 12 types of cancer, respiratory illnesses linked to burn pit exposure, and, for Vietnam veterans only, high blood pressure and a protein abnormality called monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance. However, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs excludes glioblastomas, which are cancers that start in the brain or spinal cord. This decision has been the subject of controversy, as TCDD has been shown to increase the risk of developing a range of cancers, including glioblastomas.

Today, decades after the Vietnam War, many areas in Vietnam remain polluted by Agent Orange. The most contaminated of these areas are clustered around three air bases: Da Nang, Phu Cat, and Bien Hoa. Vietnamese regions affected by Agent Orange still see higher birth defect rates than unaffected regions, including neural tube defects like spina bifida. Developmental abnormalities in children, such as Tourette’s syndrome and cerebral palsy, have also been reported. These conditions can cause problems such as language and speech difficulties, motor impairments, and stunted memory and learning. The families of children affected by these conditions receive little support from the Vietnamese government, but some have received aid from the United States Agency for International Development.

There remains relatively little research on the link between Agent Orange and specific conditions, particularly cancers and birth defects, in humans. More research in these areas would make it easier for both U.S. veterans and Vietnamese families impacted by the use of Agent Orange to receive compensation. With the PACT Act in place, this research will hopefully be more likely to find adequate funding in the near future. As for the children of Peace Village and the Vietnamese citizens living on contaminated land, a formal acknowledgment of the U.S.’s role in their current struggle is as necessary as funding and aid.