The United States dropped over 19 million gallons (around 72 million liters) of "defoliant" over 14%-18% of Vietnam between 1962 and 1970 (a small amount prior to that) in the benignly titled "Operation Ranch Hand." Over 11 million gallons (almost 42 million liters) was Agent Orange (originally "orange," each herbicide named for the color of the stripes on the barrels that contained it).
Spraying in Vietnam was discontinued largely when, in 1969, US scientific studies found it could cause birth defects in lab rodentsas early as 1965, in an internal memo of the Dow chemical company (a maker of the "defoliant"), the dioxin used in the herbicide was described as being "exceptionally toxic" (www.house.gov). It still took two years (and a small amount of domestic protest) before the program was halted. That US soldier's lives were the main concern seems a fairly safe bet. The same dioxin chemical used in Agent Orange was banned in the US and some other countries during the 1970s for reasons of its toxicity and the health/environmental danger.
In the years following the "war," US servicemen and women (and from other countries who were also there) began complaining about symptoms and health problems associated with dioxin, including cancers and birth defects. Eventually the US started compensating veterans and their families for exposure. There is evidence that suggests a majority of the claims of servicemen pertaining to agent orange exposure to be exaggerated or incorrect due to the actually small amount of exposure in most casesonly a small amount of the chemical reached the ground, most of it landing on and being absorbed by the foliage it was designed to destroy. Later health studies found only a few types of cancer to be in higher proportion in veterans who had been exposed (some suggestive evidence that a few others are as well). This is not to claim all health problems blamed on the chemical are mistaken, but that a large number likely are (nor that those making the claims are liars). This did not stop the compensation by the US government.
What seems to be the forgotten (or ignored) part of the story is the people who lived there and continue to do so. While a certain amount of national bias can be expected and is understandable ("our men"), one rarely ever hears about the toll the defoliant (the most toxic constituent not even being herbicidal) took and continues to take on the people of Vietnam. Or perhaps, it shouldn't come as a surprise. The whole time the US was compensating for exposure, it maintained that Vietnam's similar claims (which, obviously, are on a much grander scale) were wrong or even propaganda.
The stated purpose of spraying the chemicals was to decrease the jungle and forest cover used by the North Vietnamese ("enemy"). To do this, the US sprayed these millions of gallons over areas in South Vietnam (who was being "protected" from the "enemy" by the US). Another express purpose was to deprive the "enemy" of food resources. This, of course, entailed killing off crops and poisoning the land where they were grown. There was a loss of about 70% of crops. Vietnam, especially in the areas affected, is still primarily an agricultural country. And that over 6000 acres (over 24 square km) still cannot be farmed due to toxicity is notable.
Even in the early seventies, Vietnamese doctors were reporting significant rises in cancers, birth defects, and other dioxin-associated health problems. This was dismissed or ignored by the US for obvious reasons. While a certain amount of skepticism to the claims was warranted, by the time American veterans were filing complaints (including a class-action lawsuit), maintaining that the reports from Vietnam were false or mistaken seems questionable. And once the US was compensating for health problems (correctly and incorrectly) linked to Agent Orange, it becomes unconscionable.
Getting accurate information on the effects of the chemicals on the Vietnamese was difficult. One problem was the reluctance of the government to release samples to western countries. Another is that testing for dioxin is extremely cost prohibitive (between $500 and $715 a test) . The US, responsible for the contamination of the country, also refused to take part in scientific studies to determine the effects (why should it? there were none...).
In the nineties, an independent Canadian research firmHatfield Consultantsworked with a Vietnamese group to test and study and attempt to determine the extent of the damage (if there was any). In 1998, the group published its findings. The findings were sobering for people not intimately involved with the situation (i.e., the Vietnamese). They were also not widely discussed in the US.
The dioxin in Agent Orange has a half-life of almost nine years. Even then, significant levels were found throughout areas that had been exposed. Given that is nearly thirty years later, one asks "why?"
The reason is that the chemicals soaked into the soil and vegetation, got into the water and into animals and fish (along with those who lived near US bases that stored the chemicals, those for whom fish or shrimp were a staple of their diet had the largest traces in their systems). When this happens, each time that a plant or animal is consumed, the originally small amounts of toxin become more and more concentratedhigher concentrations in ducks which ate the fish and drank the water, for instance. Dioxin becomes stored in the fatty tissues of the body and there is no biological filter or process that removes it. Further, with the heavy rains some of the areas get each year, additional dioxin that had been soaked into the soil washes into the rivers and ponds, continuing the problem (on the other hand, the rains have also helped to wash some of the chemicals out to sea). The chemical is now a part of the food chain.
The team found that the highest concentrations of chemical were to be found (unsurprisingly) on or near former US bases (spraying was also heavy around bases) and in fish and pond sediments. It stated that levels found near one commune were so high that in a western country, the people would be evacuated from the area and it declared a "contaminated site." Levels in fish would "trigger a consumption advisory process (i.e., recommendations on maximum human consumption levels) and possibly prohibitions against consumption if they were from a location in Canada." Of course, it isn't Canada. Or the United States. And there was no Agent Orange problem in Vietnam.
The report also clearly shown that the elevated levels found in humans (the toxin able to pass from mother to child through breast milkas if contamination in the diet was not enough of a problem) are excessively higher among those in the (South Vietnam) exposure areas than can be found in the North where no spraying took placeone study finding it to be "10 times higher than in people living in the North, and two to three times higher than in people residing in industrialized nations." A study by the World Health Organization found that South Vietnamese women who were nursing had
significantly higher levels of the contaminant in their breast milk than their counterparts in Hanoi and in industrial countries. Breast milk from one heavily sprayed area had a level of dioxin eight times higher than samples taken from those in Hanoi, and almost five times higher than samples taken from women in the United States. (both www.house.gov)
The Canadian report also noted that Vietnamese health studies showed birth defects are "an order of magnitude higher" in one area they studied than the unsprayed "enemy" North. It does admit that to rule out other causes, a larger "thorough multinational epidemiological investigation" would be necessary.
While the conclusions are strong and supported by evidence, the report still urged caution. The Vietnamese (particularly doctors) are convinced (and the situation has been used as propaganda) that their claims will be substantiated. They claim there have been 400,000 killed or harmed by exposure and claim 500,000 births with defects. Counterclaims seem to be more of a numbers game than an evaluation of the evidence (if the numbers can be significantly lowered, then it can be easily dismissed"collateral damage"the tactic is also used by Holocaust revisionists). As if to suggest there is some "allowable" number of casualties (again: to those whom the US claimed to be protecting) in the implementation of drenching large areas of a country with highly toxic chemicals.
While there are still questions (and the numbers may be overly high), there are some safe conclusions. It is well-known and scientifically demonstrated that the chemical can cause the health problems being claimed. The arguments are the amount necessary, the amount of actual exposure, and possible different or contributing environmental or other causes. There certainly is a high level of dioxin to be found in adults and children in the areas that were sprayedeven those born well after the end of the "war"and a far lower level among those not in sprayed areas. Ground, water, and food contamination has been amply demonstrated. And the source of the dioxin is unchallenged even by the US. Environmental damage is a given.
Dioxin has known effects. Dioxin is present in very high amounts in areas that were sprayed with dioxinin the words of a University of Texas researcher, "it's the largest contamination of dioxin in the world" (www.motherjones.com). The question isn't whether exposure has harmed anyone (even with some mistaken claims, that some US servicemen exposed most certainly have suffered the effects of Agent Orange is clear), but the extent of the damage to the people exposed.
The US has long either denied, dismissed, downplayed or dragged its feet on the issueas to whether is would officially admit liability is highly unlikely, despite having essentially done so in the case of its veteransany negotiations on the subject breaking down due to "compensation" issues. (Though the United States' general animosity toward the country shouldn't be completely dismissed.)
In 2001 (thirty-one years after the last use of Agent Orange), the US announced that it had made an agreement with Vietnam to "study the possible effects of Agent Orange." In the expected self-congratulatory (and deprecatory to Vietnam by implication) sound bite, the US ambassador to the country stated "the U.S. has long offered to engage in serious, joint scientific research with Vietnam to reach a well-founded understanding of the environmental and health effects of dioxin, an element in Agent Orange that has been claimed to cause health problems" (both www.cnn.com). Apparently the Vietnamese were the stumbling block.
The first conference is tentatively scheduled for April 2002.
(Sources: www.hatfieldgroup.com/featured/614overview.htm, www.house.gov/bernie/publications/articles/2000-04-25-ao-globe.html, dns.advnet.net/gdmoore/aotalk1.htm, www.poptel.org.uk/panap/latest/vietnam.htm, www.motherjones.com/mother_jones/JF00/orange.html, www.cbc.ca/news/national/magazine/orange, www.cnn.com/2001/WORLD/asiapcf/southeast/07/04/vietnam.agent.orange)