Agent Orange in Vietnam: After 50 Years, It’s Time To Clean Up Our Mess

Dioxin, which has been linked to cancer and birth defects, will be removed from the site of a former U.S. air base.
Agent Orange: Vietnam victims at a hospice in Da Nang. (Nguyen Huy Kham / Reuters)
Aug 9, 2012
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

“The United States and Vietnam on Thursday began a clean up of the remnants of Agent Orange, a defoliant that American planes sprayed on the South Vietnamese jungle in order to deprive Viet Cong of tree cover during the Vietnam War,” reports The Washington Post.

“Agent Orange, which contains a compound called dioxin, has been linked to cancer and severe birth defects. Up to three million Vietnamese people were exposed to the chemical and at least 150,000 children born with birth defects.”

The $43 million joint project is expected to take four years on a 47-acre contaminated site that’s now an active Vietnamese military base near Da Nang’s commercial airport. The Post said, “the Da Nang Airbase is one of three ‘dioxin hotspots’ where concentrations of extremely toxic contaminants from Agent Orange are nearly 400 times the globally accepted maximum standard. Until the area was sealed off five years ago, locals still used water and fished in Da Nang, causing horrific health issues even in people who weren’t exposed at the time.”

MORE: Retro Action, May 7, 1984: At Last, Vietnam Vets Win a Battle Against Agent Orange

The New York Times reports that, “Over a decade of war, the United States sprayed about 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, halting only after scientists commissioned by the Agriculture Department issued a report expressing concerns that dioxin showed ‘a significant potential to increase birth defects.’ By the time the spraying stopped, Agent Orange and other herbicides had destroyed 2 million hectares, or 5.5 million acres, of forest and cropland, an area roughly the size of New Jersey.”

Another, not to be forgotten, part of the Agent Orange story concerns the U.S. Military. The American Cancer Society notes that of the approximately three million people who served in Vietnam during the course of the war, about 1.5 million “served during the period of heaviest herbicide spraying from 1967 to 1969. In studies comparing Vietnam veterans with veterans who had served at the same time elsewhere, TCDD (dioxin) levels were found to be higher among those who had served in Vietnam, although these levels went down slowly over time.”

The Times notes that, “When environmental factors are linked to disease, proof positive is sometimes hard to determine. American military studies have outlined connections between Agent Orange and myriad ailments, while Dow Chemical maintains that the “very substantial body of human evidence on Agent Orange establishes that veterans’ illnesses are not caused by Agent Orange.”

But even if we toss aside causal effects, we’re talking about some nasty stuff here.

The World Health Organization says, “Dioxins are a group of chemically-related compounds that are persistent environmental pollutants . . . are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.”

Do you think the U.S. should be cleaning up Agent Orange in Vietnam? And have we done enough to help our troops who may have suffered side effects from exposure to it?

Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence |

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