Remnants of Past: How Agent Orange changed Vietnam forever

Agent Orange refers to a herbicide mixture deployed by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War (1955-1975). Most of the constitution of Agent Orange comprised of a dangerous chemical contaminant called dioxin. Dioxin is an extremely toxic and persistent organic pollutant associated with many diseases like cancers, diabetes, birth defects and other disabilities. Considering the dangerous effects of the substance, the production of Agent Orange was discontinued in the 1970s.

How Agent Orange Impacted Vietnam

Grossly, the U.S. sprayed more than 20 million gallons of various herbicides over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos from 1961 to 1971. This was up to 20 times the concentration the manufacturers recommended for killing plants. As a result, it defoliated millions of acres of forests and farmland. The land remains degraded and infertile even today.

The chemical dioxin in Agent Orange can stay toxic in the soil for decades. Soil samples have now been analyzed from the areas that were heavily sprayed and the former military bases where Agent Orange and other chemicals were stored and handled. In almost all instances, dioxin levels were very high in concentration.

Enormous quantity of dioxin was washed into all water sources that include marshes, rivers, lakes, and ponds, etc in Vietnam. Dioxin buried or leached under the surface or deep in the sediment of rivers and other bodies of water can have a life of more than 100 years. The toxin accumulated here in sediments and the aquatic animals have been ingesting it since. Accumulating in the fatty tissue of animals, the toxin has infiltrated the aquatic food chain. Fishing has been prohibited at most of the contaminated areas, but such bans are routinely neglected. As a result, the toxin still ends up on the plates of people across much of Vietnam and can stay in the body for as long as 20 years, causing continuous and permanent (occasionally fatal) damage. But the multifold impact of the poisonous chemical does not stop here. The Red Cross estimates that three million Vietnamese have been affected by dioxin, including at least 150,000 children who are born with severe birth deformities.

Mr. Sun, a decorated officer in Vietnam and the only one in his platoon to survive the war, addressed the situation in a documentary of Unreported World ‘The Vietnam War’s Agent Orange legacy. He recalls, “When soldiers inhaled the chemical, their ears bled. When they sprayed the poison, we had to cover our nose. In fact, a day after they sprayed the chemical, the tress would shed their leaves and we would lose our cover.” His daughter, who was 41 at the time the documentary was made, has had seizures since birth. She is deaf, dumb and paralyzed. Few studies exist about the long-range health effects of the Vietnam War on soldiers, civilians, or the general environment. There is a strong suspicion that the elevated rates of birth defects may be attributable to herbicides, but scientific corroboration is limited.

Faced with this dilemma, the Institute of Medicine oversaw development of a military record–based exposure methodology, for estimating exposures; sufficient funding to carry out epidemiological studies has not been forthcoming despite strong congressional mandates. The at-risk veteran population is now at an age at which chronic diseases become manifest, so the moment is optimal for conducting such studies, creating health programs for veterans to better meet their requirements, and truly assessing, addressing, and ameliorating health conditions and continuing exposures to lingering traces of Agent Orange in Vietnam.

The production of Agent Orange was suspended in the 1970s. Although the chemical is no longer in use, the dioxin contaminant continues to have an adverse impact even today. Among those who were lucky enough to survive the trenches of Vietnam, the health issues–now generations later–have been a living nightmare. Agent Orange is linked to serious health issues including cancers, severe psychological and neurological problems, and birth defects, both among the Vietnamese people and the U.S. military.

The chemical corporations that manufactured the Vietnam-era herbicides say they were not completely aware of how lethal the dioxin contaminant was. The impact that dioxin exposure has on human health, especially the indirect effects on unborn generations, continue to be controversial subjects even today. Those who suffered grave physical and mental repercussions of Agent Orange include State Department officials, soldiers from countries like Australia and visitors who spent stints in the region due to war-time obligations. Additionally, more than 4 million Vietnamese citizens were subjected to Agent Orange exposure.

Steps taken for regulation

Due to its extensive use in the 1960s, Agent Orange was restricted 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. As of today, there is no ‘Agent Orange’ in Vietnam or anywhere else today.

Operation Ranch Hand, where Agent Orange was used excessively, is one of the most massive exposures of civilian and military populations to toxic chemicals that were once thought to be safe. The adverse effects of the chemical can be seen throughout generations. To prevent dioxin from penetrating the food chain and affecting both adults and children in surrounding areas, these chemical “hot spots” are now being cleaned up. Existing stocks were collected and destroyed by incineration, and it is no longer in use.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) has made an extensive list of diseases that make it easier to qualify for benefits. Until the 1990s, the state-recognized only one ailment–a skin condition called chloracne–as being related to Agent Orange. But over the years, the list of medical conditions associated with Agent Orange has grown to more than a dozen, including some that are much more prevalent. The list now includes diseases like – ischemic heart disease, lung and trachea cancers, prostate cancer, multiple myeloma, Hodgkin’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, etc. Several other diseases such as – bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, hypertension among others —are under consideration to be added to the list in the future. Once a disease is put on the list, it is easier to get disability compensation for it because the VA presumes the disease directly results from exposure to Agent Orange for veterans. These veterans don’t require to prove that they were subjected to Agent Orange to qualify for benefits related to disorders on the list. 

According to Bart Stichman, Executive Director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), “There are yet thousands of veterans who don’t know that their disease is on the list.” For veterans who qualify for disability pensions and survivors who qualify for death payments, the aids can mean tens of thousands of dollars every annum in income. “The problem is that veterans don’t automatically make the connection between a disease they have had for years and the expanded Agent Orange list. If a veteran is consulting a civilian doctor who isn’t well-versed in veterans’ issues, the doctor wouldn’t necessarily associate the diagnosis with Agent Orange,” says Stichman.

When veterans don’t think about claiming the disability benefits based on conditions added to the list, they can miss out on sizable payments. Along with that, when they aren’t aware about their disease being on the list, the survivors also miss out on monthly payments under a program called Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC), which provides lifetime tax-free income to survivors or veterans who had service-related disabilities or diseases. NVLSP estimates that tens of thousands of survivors are unaware they are qualified for benefits because their spouses had disorders that the VA could link to Agent Orange only after their death. Survivor benefits can increase depending on their case, including whether they require a caregiver to assist them with daily activities.

Along with the veterans, the survivors also can occasionally get retroactive payments besides qualifying for monthly death benefits. Even if veterans suffer from an ailment not on the VA list, they should consider applying for disability benefits if they believe it results from Agent Orange exposure. The VA says it encourages veterans in such cases to gather medical and scientific evidence that their condition was caused by Agent Orange and submit it to see if it qualifies them for a service-related disability benefit. “If a direct link is made to Agent Orange exposure in a specific case, then service connection could still be granted,’’ says Beth Murphy, VA Compensation Service Director. Veteran service groups suggest it can be worth trying to draw such claims, even though they can be difficult.

According to Felicia Mullaney, Deputy Director of Veterans Benefits, Vietnam Veterans of America, “This type of situation requires a lot of medical evidence and is harder to prove, but not impossible.” The VA suggests that veterans can obtain support from this list of government-accredited Veterans and Military Service Organizations. Veterans and survivors also can gain more information about eligibility for aids. One way for veterans to get started if they’ve never explored a link between their medical ailments and Agent Orange is to check if they qualify for a free Agent Orange exam.

It is crucial to start cleaning up the mess that has persisted for individuals and communities. Along with that, there is a need to begin the bilateral healing process by having the uncomfortable conversations that the American military that had not been done previously. It was stated on the record by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) that the goal is to, “Turn Agent Orange from being a symbol of antagonism and resentment into another example of the U.S. and Vietnamese governments working together to address one of the most difficult and emotional legacies of war.”

Among all the challenges, the biggest challenge is lack of knowledge about the services available to Veterans ad survivors of Agent Orange. It is necessary that the word gets spread so they can benefit from the services. This may not mitigate the challenges faced by them so far, but can be a small contribution in the ones that lay ahead. Because when it comes to Agent Orange, the fog of war continued on long after the guns fell silent in Vietnam.

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Vama Parakh

Vama Parakh

Vama writes on issues regarding society, environment, psychology and health. To connect, reach out to her on LinkedIn or at her email - parakhvama01@gmail.com

Vama Parakh

Vama writes on issues regarding society, environment, psychology and health. To connect, reach out to her on LinkedIn or at her email - parakhvama01@gmail.com

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