The Swift Boat putters slowly up the Mekong River on a moonless night. Alert Brown Water sailors peer out over the railing at the overgrown jungle hugging the riverbank.

Agent Orange was sprayed on roughly 10% of South Vietnam’s area, from the Demilitarized Zone in the north, where it was used to deny cover to the enemy transporting supplies on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, to the Mekong Delta in the south, where its use pushed North Vietnam Army (photo below) and Viet Cong forces back from the riverbank, greatly reducing their ability to ambush our patrol vessels.

“As more and more
Agent Orange was dropped,
our patrol boat casualties
began to drop significantly.”

– Admiral Elmo Zumwalt Jr., “My Father, My Son,” 1986.
 

The War

The defoliation program in Vietnam started out small and nearly ended before it began, as the Department of Defense, the State Department, the White House and the Government of South Vietnam debated its efficacy. However, by the end of the herbicide program in 1971, nearly 20,000 sorties had been flown, destroying over 5 million acres of upland and mangrove forests and 500,000 acres of crops. The latest estimates of the volume of herbicides sprayed are 12.1 million gallons of Agent Orange, and 19.3-20.3 million gallons of all herbicides.  While this was a sufficient volume of Agent Orange to blanket one-fourth of South Vietnam, or 18 thousand square miles, about 10% of South Vietnam was actually sprayed. (7812 square miles of forest land and 500,000 acres of crops.) About 34% of the targeted areas were sprayed more than once. The areas that were repeatedly sprayed suffered the worst damage. Approximately

The herbicides wreaked environmental havoc that will take a hundred years or more to counteract, even though the herbicide component of Agent Orange dissipated almost immediately after the spraying.  The dioxin contaminant, on the other hand, lives on.

The Continuing Problem

Researchers have found that the areas in Vietnam that were aerially sprayed now have low levels of residual dioxin in the soil.   However, they also found that “dioxin hotspots” exist in areas where the herbicides were stored, leaked or spilled and leached into the soil, or where it was transported via soil particles and settled in the sediment of nearby, rivers, lakes and ponds. Vietnamese officials believe that there are up to 28 potential “dioxin hotspots” throughout southern Vietnam that may potentially expose a new generation to the poison. They have identified the former US airbases at Da Nang, Phu Cat and Bien Hoa as significant “hotspots” in need of immediate remediation.  If Agent Orange was deployed to fight an invisible enemy in Vietnam, those exposed to the dioxin contaminant have been burdened ever since with an invisible enemy of their own.

There are no accurate numbers for those who may have been affected by these toxic herbicides. Researchers from Columbia University School of Public Health estimated that 4.8 million Vietnamese civilians were living in the villages that were under the spray paths.  At least an additional 1 million soldiers from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), the Vietnam National Liberation Front (NLF) and North Vietnamese Army were also potentially exposed.  The Vietnam Red Cross estimates that up to 3 million Vietnamese health has been affected, of whom 150,000 are children with birth defects

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs presumes that all of the 2.8 million U.S. veterans who “had their boots on the ground” in Vietnam from 1962–1975 were exposed to the toxic herbicides and are eligible for disability payments if they have one of the conditions found to be associated with such exposure, a list that continues to grow.    Some of the Blue Water Navy veterans who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam during the war are now also considered exposed to the herbicides. However, US veterans continue to be frustrated that that their health concerns and those of their children and even their grandchildren have not been adequately addressed.

Indeed, even though 2,4,5-T and Agent Orange were banned from use nearly 40 years ago, the dioxin that contaminated 2,4,5-T still poses long-term health and environmental difficulties wherever the herbicide was used, stored, tested and manufactured—in Vietnam, in the United States, and throughout the world.

While at least recognizing that Agent Orange is associated with certain cancers and other health problems of American veterans and their offspring, the US government has consistently denied—much to the frustration of the Vietnamese—that any scientific evidence links Agent Orange to adverse health effects found in Vietnam, especially in regards to specific birth defects.  
 
However, the US Government has recognized that the problem has hindered the normalization of relations with Vietnam, and in recent years American officials have begun to dialogue with Vietnamese counterparts about the issue. In 2003, the US Environmental Protection Agency began a joint project with the Vietnamese to exam further the dioxin hotspot at the Da Nang airbase and the two governments are now working together to develop a remediation plan. In 2007, Congress allocated $3 million to address remediation of dioxin hotspots in Vietnam and to support public health programs in the surrounding communities.  Additional allocations of $3 million each were granted for the 2009 and 2010 fiscal years and another $12 million was allocated as part of the 2010 supplemental spending bill. The Veteran’s Administration under Secretary Shinseki has also begun to be more proactive in addressing the concerns of US veterans, adding three more conditions to the list of those associated with exposure to the herbicides, although much needs to be done.

Paingting above by Vu Giang Huong

Aftermath.

Interactive Map:
View spraying missions in Vietnam by date and location.
U.S. troops, Vietnamese nationals exposed to dangerous chemicals.  By Jason Grotto, Chris Groskopf, Ryan Mark, Joe Germuska and Brian Boyer. Chicago Tribune staff, Dec. 4, 2009.

Agent Orange in the Viet Nam War: History and Consquences

by Prof. Dr. Le Cao Dai
(published in Vietnam - not currently available)