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Agent Orange And Dioxin Essay, Research Paper

In 1961, the United States began spraying herbicides in its military campaign to defoliate

the jungles of southern Vietnam. Mimicking Smokey Bear, American pilots chuckled

Remember, only you can prevent forests, as they dropped weed killers over target sites.

But as research progressed, the true nature of the chemicals which they were spraying

came to light. It is certainly no longer a laughing matter when it is realized that Agent

Orange, a fifty-fifty mixture of 2,4,D and 2,4,5,T usually mixed with kerosene or diesel

fuel, could be as deadly to humans as it is to plants.

The military research of herbicides dates back to World War II. A grant was provided

by the National Research Council to develop a chemical to destroy rice crops in Japan.

2,4,D and 2,4,5,T was the result. A discussion between President Roosevelt and White

House Chief of Staff, Admiral William D. Leahy determined that this heinous chemical

should not be used. But in 1961 President Kennedy signed two orders allowing Agent

Orange to be used in Vietnam (one to destroy crops and the other to defoliate the

jungle). Defoliation stripped the jungle of vegetation. Left barren, it no longer provided

camouflage for the Viet Cong, their supply routes and base camps would be more prone

to aerial attacks. Crop destruction denied the communists of local food sources. This

forced them to divert more resources to provide and transport foods from other regions.

But just as important, crop destruction also weakened enemy morale and forced villagers

to move to cities where they could be more easily controlled.

The program for spraying herbicides over Vietnam was either called Operation Trail

Dust or Operation Ranch Hand . It began in 1961 and peaked from 1967 to 1969.

Various methods were employed to systematically spray these chemicals, which were

dispersed by aircraft, vehicle, boat, and hand-spraying. On ground, they were used by

soldiers to clear the perimeters of their base camps. Riverboats were used to spray the

riverbanks. Most damage to the jungle was done by air. The Air Force Operation Ranch

Hand, as it was called, used C-123 cargo aircrafts (providers) and helicopters to drop the

majority of the herbicides. There were an estimated 19.4 million gallons dropped during

the Vietnam War, sixty percent of which were Agent Orange. The average C-123 aircraft

could dump eleven thousand pounds of agent orange over three hundred acres in four


There were many types of herbicides used by the United States in Vietnam. Each was

named after the color of the four inch band painted around the fifty-five gallon drums in

which it was contained: Agent White, Purple, Blue, Green, Pink and Orange.

The effects of the sprayings on the jungle were immediately recognizable. Estimates

show that six million acres or twenty percent of the entire land area of the republic of

South Vietnam was covered with chemical poisons. The President of South Vietnam,

Nguyen Van Thieu, announced that herbicides had destroyed twenty-three percent of

forests in his country. Scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of

Science who visited Vietnam in 1970 reported that bamboo had spread to reclaim forest

floors that hardwoods once claimed. Nearly all trees of coastal mangroves were destroyed

after one spraying and were not expected to return to their normal states for at least one

hundred years. More than six thousand two hundred and fifty square miles of south

Vietnam still can not be farmed because of defoliation.

The effects of the herbicides on humans were less obvious. Agent Orange is a

mixture of two major compounds- 2,4,Dichlorophenoxy acetic acid and

2,4,5,Trichlorophenoxy acetic acid. By mimicking a natural plant growth hormone, auxin,

these herbicides are able to induce plants to grow themselves past their natural levels of

tolerance. They were first used in the 1940 s in the United States to destroy weeds in

grain fields, pastures and turf. By the 1960 s, these herbicides had become an important

method of controlling weeds. Unfortunately, it was unknown at that time that Agent

Orange also contained one of the most lethal compounds known to man, dioxin. It s

ironic that the dioxin that makes agent orange so deadly isn t even an intended part of

the plant killer.

Dioxin generally refers to a group of about seventy-five chemicals made of two

benzene rings with substituted chlorines. They are by-products in the manufacture of

chlorine products like Polychlorinated Biphenyl oils or the burning of chlorine containing

wastes such as PVC pipes. In the production of chlorophenoxy herbicides, they were

unwanted chemicals that couldn t be removed. Dioxin is also produced by automobiles

(chlorinated chemicals are deliberately added to fuels), steel mills ( chlorinated solvents,

cutting oils and plastics are put into the furnaces), recycling smelters for copper, lead,

and steel ( the products recycled in them contain significant quantities of PVC, such as

cable coatings, battery casings, automobile components, and so on), sawmills ( use of

pentachlorophenol as a wood preservative), hazardous waste incinerators ( burn

chlorinated solvents or, like those that Dow operates, burn copious wastes from the

manufacture of chlorinated plastics, pesticides, and other chemicals), cement kilns,

industrial untreated wood burning, forest fires, and sewage sludge incineration. Dioxin is

usually taken in by the ingestion of beef, dairy products, milk, chicken, pork, fish, eggs,

soil and water.

The toxicity of the 75 different chlorinated dioxins and 135 different chlorinated

furans (related family of compounds) is highly variable. The 2,3,7,8-TCDD

(Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin) found in Agent Orange has been described as one of the

most toxic chemicals known to man, based on animal studies. However epidemiological

studies of humans exposed to this compound have failed to conclusively attribute

significant health effects except chloracne at high doses. Other dioxins, such as

octachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (OCDD), have very low toxicity.

A study conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health

(NIOSH) on roughly three thousand five hundred workers from U.S. plants that used to

produced chemicals contaminated with TCDD confirmed previous findings that high

exposure to TCDD resulted in significant increase in cancer deaths. NIOSH found an

average increase in cancer mortality of thirteen percent in the group and an increase of

sixty percent among workers with the highest level of TCDD exposure.

The mechanism by which dioxin causes damage at the cellular level is not exactly

known. It has been assumed that dioxin may be stored in fat cells and is activated by

internal stress to induce chromosomal and cellular damage. Whatever the case, the

toxicity of dioxin is unquestioned. Even at extremely small levels, it has been proven to

be a deadly poison. Animal studies have shown that guinea pigs could die by a single

dose that weighs less than a billionth of their body weight. In mice and rats, low levels

of dioxin have been reported to cause decreased weight, lowered reproductive rate and

internal hemorrhaging. Studies have found that, when given an oral dose of 210 ng/kg

for 78 weeks, rats developed increase incidences in liver, hard palate, and tongue tumors.

In 1969, the extensive use of herbicides was halted after a National Institute of Health

report concluded that dioxin caused stillbirth in mice. The last herbicide operation was

flown two years later.

The cessation for the use of herbicides had come too late. By then, thousands of

American soldiers and countless Vietnamese villagers had already been exposed to dioxin.

Americans who came in contact with this poison included those who fought in the

jungles, patrolled the rivers by boat, or participated in the spraying of herbicides. Many

came home and were reported to have high increases in illnesses that were extremely

uncommon in the general population. In contrast to animal studies, the cause and effect

of dioxin on the veterans were not well determined because the amount of exposure is

difficult to quantify among those who claimed to have been illed by dioxin.

But the correlation between dioxin and the reported illnesses are well documented.

The Institute of Medicine had found that there is sufficient evidence of a statistical

association between dioxin or herbicides and soft tissue sarcoma ( tumors in muscles, fat,

fibrous tissues, and vessels serving these tissues as well as the peripheral nervous

system), non-Hodgkin s lymphoma ( tumors or enlargement of the lymphnodes or lymph

glands), Hodgkin s Disease ( enlargement of the lymphnodes and spleen which often

begins in a cervical node on the side of the neck and spreads through the body),

chloracne ( an acne form eruption caused by chlorine compounds), dioxin related liver

disorders, diabetes ( a variety of disorders linked to high or low glucose levels),

malformations and other reproductive and developmental effects and endocrine disruption

( malfunction of the hormonal system). In scientific terms, statistical association means

that there is an extremely low probability, less than five percent, that the events occurred

randomly. A study by the Center for Disease Control found that there is a fifty percent

higher rate of non-Hodgkin s Lymphoma among Vietnam vets than vets who didn t serve

in Vietnam.

The Department of Veterans Affairs had provided special compensation for those who

have become ill due to dioxin. Veterans who have chloracne, Hodgkin s disease, multiple

myeloma ( tumor normally found in bone marrow), non-Hodgkin s Lymphoma, porphyria

cutanea tarda ( a disturbance in hemoglobin which is essential to normal functioning of

the cells and tissues of the body), respiratory cancers, soft tissue sarcoma, acute and

subacute peripheral neuropathy ( abnormal changes in the peripheral nervous system), and

prostate cancer could qualify for monthly payments. The VA does not require that

veterans prove that they were harmed by dioxin. It is assumed that all personnel who

served in Vietnam have been exposed to it. The believed amount of time for dioxin to

leave the body naturally (by either being metabolized or eliminated by normal biological

processes) is 8.7 human years (determined by the Ranch Hand follow-up studies).

Unlike their American counterparts, Vietnamese victims were exposed to dioxin on a

long term basis. It is believed that the chemicals remained on the ground for twelve

years. Each year, monsoon rains would spread the chemicals to uncontaminated areas by

flushing it into streams and rivers. Many health experts believe that dioxin is in the food

chain of southern Vietnam. It is carried in drinking water or by the fish caught in

contaminated streams. but relatively little is known about the effects of dioxin on the

villagers that were sprayed on. In part, this is due to their isolation from local

authorities and hospitals.

The Vietnamese veterans and their families, however, did file a class action suit

against seven chemical companies : Dow Chemical, Monsanto, Uniroyal, Hercules,

Diamond Shamrock, Thompson Chemical, and T.H. Agriculture. It was settled out of

court in May 1984 for victims and families of those exposed to herbicides for one-

hundred and eighty million dollars ( of which the lawyers got a staggering one hundred

million dollars… go figure). The amount given to the qualifying was pathetic. For

example, A woman whose husband suffered, and eventually died, leaving her and three

children was given just over three thousand dollars. And another man who suffered from

a brain tumor and other herbicide related diseases for over three years was given only

one thousand eight hundred and sixty dollars. And in another case a platoon that

operated in a part of Vietnam that had been heavily sprayed has had five of it s twenty

members diagnosed as suffering from dioxin poisoning. That s twenty-five percent. That s

five hundred percent above that national average for these types of disorders. This in

itself is scary but the researcher was only able to locate six of the twenty members of

his platoon. How many of those that weren t contacted had similar symptoms? Veterans

tell story after story of veterans who suddenly age. Their hair falls out in clumps, what

remains turns white. They suffer from strange nerve disorders, irritableness, weight loss,

palsies and finally, death. None of the five men found from that platoon were given any

kind of compensation from the Agent Orange Veteran Payment Program.

Perhaps the most extensive long-term damage of dioxin was done to the second

generation victims. It has been found that Vietnam veterans generally have lower sperm

counts that those who didn t serve in the war. In addition, their children have been more

prone to birth defects pertaining to the skin, nervous system, heart, kidneys and oral

clefts. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome is four times more likely in those born to

Vietnamese veterans.

Difficult and premature births are a commonality at the Tu Du Obstetrical and

Gynecological Hospital in Vietnam, which receives the bulk of the patients who received

the largest amounts of defoliants in Vietnam. A hospital study in 1987 found that thirty

percent of the seventeen thousand babies delivered at the hospital were either difficult of

premature. The comparative rates of all south Vietnam is ten percent and for the whole

country, it is eight percent.

Instances of birth defects are also extremely high at the hospital. Here, infants born

without arms, legs, shoulders, and ears have all been found. Others have been born with

gross cleft palates or were hydrocephalic ( water on the brain). In 1987 alone, forty

infants suffered from neural tube defects ( abnormality of the fallopian tubes), forty from

cleft palates, and thirty-two from malformation or absence of arms and legs. Every year

since 1975, the hospital has been the site of five or more siamese twins. Physicians at

the hospital report that a deformed fetus is delivered every two to three days. A room at

the hospital contains jars which store aborted and full fetuses with atrocious genetic

defects. For us, they are reminders of what happens when one tinkers with mother


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