What is Agent Orange?

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Agent Orange was a herbicide mixture used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. Much of it contained a dangerous chemical contaminant called dioxin. Production of Agent Orange ended in the 1970s and is no longer in use. The dioxin contaminant however continues to have harmful impact today. As many U.S.Vietnam-era veterans know, dioxin is a highly toxic and persistent organic pollutant linked to cancers, diabetes, birth defects and other disabilities.

The Red Cross estimates that three million Vietnamese have been affected by dioxin, including at least 150,000 children born with serious birth defects. Millions of Americans and Vietnamese are still affected, directly and indirectly, by the wartime U.S. spraying of Agent Orange and other herbicides over southern and central Vietnam.

Agent Orange was sprayed at up to 20 times the concentration the manufacturers recommended for killing plants. It defoliated millions of acres of forests and farmland. Large tracts of that land remain degraded and unproductive to this day. The chemical dioxin in Agent Orange can remain toxic in the soil for decades. Soil samples have now been analyzed from both the areas that were heavily sprayed and the former American military bases where Agent Orange and other chemicals were stored and handled. In almost all instances measured dioxin levels were below Government of Vietnam threshold standards. However some soils at three of the former military bases did have very high concentrations of dioxin. To prevent dioxin from entering the food chain and affecting both adults and children in surrounding areas, these chemical “hot spots” are now being cleaned up.

After its use in the 1960s, Agent Orange was banned by the U.S. in 1971 and remaining stocks were taken from Vietnam and the U.S. to Johnston Atoll, a U.S. controlled island about 700 miles SE of Hawaii, where it was destroyed in 1978. There is no ‘Agent Orange’ in Vietnam or anywhere else today.

Learn more about the ongoing cleanup and important impact of government and donor support in the USAID Cleanup Progress Reports.

About Agent Orange: Agent Orange was one of a class of color-coded herbicides that U.S. forces sprayed over the rural landscape in Vietnam from 1961 to 1971 to defoliate trees and shrubs and kill food crops that were providing cover and food to opposition forces. It was a 50/50 mixture of two herbicides: 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. It remained toxic for only days or weeks and then degraded,[i] but it had a toxic contaminant, dioxin, that did not degrade as readily and is still causing health problems in Vietnam.

About Dioxin: Its chemical name is 2,3,7,8-tetrachloro-dibenzo-para-dioxin, or TCDD. It is a persistent organic pollutant that contaminated Agent Orange and some of the other color-coded herbicides when the production of one of their components (2,4,5-T) was accelerated during wartime.[ii] TCDD is the most toxic of about 419 types of similar toxic compounds, which include PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). The chemical companies that produced the Vietnam-era herbicides say they were not fully aware of how toxic the dioxin contaminant was. The effects of dioxin exposure on human health and particularly indirect effects on unborn generations continue to be controversial subjects today.

Agent Orange/Dioxin Use in Vietnam: About 60 percent of the herbicides used in Vietnam was Agent Orange. More than 45 million litres (12.1 million U.S. gallons) of it were used from 1962-1970. An additional 28 million litres (7.4 million U.S. gallons) of Agents White, Blue, Purple, Pink and Green were also sprayed. [iii] The concentrations were some 20 times normal agricultural use for killing plants. Estimates of the amount of dioxin in the herbicides vary because each manufacturer and each batch of 2,4,5-T had different levels of the dioxin contaminant. [iv]

The first test spraying occurred August 10, 1961. The U.S. Air Force aerial spraying program, Operation Hades (later renamed Operation Ranch Hand), took place from January 1962 until February 1971, largely from C-123 cargo planes, which accounted for 95 percent of the herbicides sprayed. The U.S. Chemical Corps and other allied forces sprayed the remaining 5 percent from helicopters, trucks and by hand, mostly to clear brush around military base perimeters. [v]

The herbicides were sprayed over about 24 percent of southern Vietnam, destroying 5 million acres of upland and mangrove forests and about 500,000 acres of crops, a total area nearly the size of Massachusetts. Of these areas, 34 percent were sprayed more than once; some of the upland forests were sprayed more than four times.[vi] One study found that 3,181 villages were sprayed as well.[vii] Areas of Laos and Cambodia near the Vietnam border were also sprayed.

The U.S. government stopped the spraying of all herbicides in October 1971, but the South Vietnamese military continued spraying various chemicals until 1972. The production of Agent Orange was halted in the 1970s. Existing stocks were collected and destroyed by incineration, and it is no longer used. [viii]

The Lifespan of Dioxin: The half-life of dioxin depends on its location. In human bodies the half-life is 11–15 years, though it can be as high as 20 years. In the environment, the half-life varies depending on the type of soil and the depth of penetration. Sun will break down dioxin, so on leaf and soil surfaces it will last 1–3 years, depending on conditions. Dioxin buried or leached under the surface or deep in the sediment of rivers and other bodies of water can have a half-life of more than 100 years. [viii]

[i] For toxicity information on 2,4, 5-T see http://www.pesticideinfo.org/Detail_Chemical.jsp:Rec_Id=PC34514. For information on 2,4-D, see http://www.pesticideinfo.org/Detail_Chemical.jsp.

[ii] Dwnerychuk, Wayne and Bailey, Charles, “Clarity on Two Terms,” July 7, 2009. Agents Pink, Purple and Green also contained 2,4,5-T and therefore dioxin. http://www.warlegacies.org/Agent%20Orange/Clarity.pdf.

[iii] Stellman, J. et al, “The Extent and Pattern of Usage of Agent Orange and other Herbicides in Viet Nam,” Nature, Vol. 422, April 17, 2003, pp. 681-687.

[iv] Samples from barrels of Agent Orange stored at Gulfport, Miss., and Johnston Island, tested by the US military in 1977, had a range of <3-50 ppm. Researchers used these levels to estimate dioxin in herbicides sprayed in Vietnam. Stellman estimated 221-366 kg, Gough 167kg, Young 130-144 kg and Westing 170kg.

[v] Stellman, op. cit.

[vi] Vo Quy, “Statement to the House Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and Global Environment,” June 4, 2009.http://www.internationalrelations.house.gov/111/quy060409.pdf.

[vii] Stellman, op. cit.

[vii] Dwernychuck, op. cit.

[viii] Martini, Edwin A., Agent Orange: History, Science, and the Politics of Uncertainty, University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.