SEATTLE, Washington — During the Vietnam War, the United States used a defoliant chemical called Agent Orange to expose the Vietnamese military positioned within thick forests. Between 1961-1971, the U.S. sprayed around 80 million liters of Agent Orange primarily across Vietnam’s Southern country-side regions. The U.S. intended the defoliant to strip the Vietnamese military of overhead foliage coverage and food sources. However, its unforeseen consequences have taken a lasting impact on the lives of those who came in contact with Agent Orange in Vietnam.
The Dangers of Agent Orange
Research eventually showed that Agent Orange was the main producer of a chemical called dioxin. Dioxin is a dangerous toxin that can cause genetic mutation in those who touch or consume it. It has a half-life of 7-11 years. In other words, dioxin remains in water sources and soils for a long time. This means the chemical is still impacting those living where the U.S. dropped it. Additionally, it is traceable within secondary consumers of those natural resources like livestock, fish and farm produce. Agent Orange is thought to be a leading cause of health defects for many Vietnam war veterans and possibly their offspring.
Studies on Birth Defects
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) did a study on babies in Vietnam born between the years 1968 and 1980. Its intent was to determine the extent to which Agent Orange could be responsible for causing congenital defects. The CDC registered the study to a program called the Metropolitan Atlanta Congenital Defects Program (MACDP). This allowed them to obtain information regarding potential paternal exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam, birth records and record of birth-defects.
The CDC ranked veteran fathers on a five-level scale to determine their Exposure Opportunity Index (EOI). The EOI scale allowed for a distinction between children born to veterans exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam and those born to veteran fathers who were not. With the data collected, the CDC determined it was impossible to definitively associate birth defects with parental exposure to Agent Orange. However, they did admit that the number of babies born with rare defects during this timeframe was relatively high.
While research from the CDC was unable to conclude a linkage between the chemical and high rates of birth defects, ProPublica and the Virginian-Pilot teamed up to gather their own data from veterans affected by Agent Orange in Vietnam. The duo reached a different conclusion from the CDC regarding the effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam. Veterans that report having been in direct contact with barrels housing the chemical, been a primary sprayer of the chemical or had been sprayed directly with the chemical were three times more likely to have a child who would develop a genetic birth defect.
Personal Testimony and Other Concerns
One American army veteran, named Mike Blackledge, reports to ProPublica that his family is victim to this statistic. Blackledge has three children; two of his children battle debilitating birth defects likely as a result of his time serving in Vietnam under direct contact with Agent Orange. Yet, his first child, who was born before her father’s contact with the chemical, lives without a birth defect.
However, there aren’t just personal accounts of the toxin’s danger. Many Vietnamese families fear exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam posed serious generational health risks to their families and communities. One 16-year-old named Thao in Cu Chi has lived his entire life with his legs bound together. Agent Orange was likely the cause of this birth defect. Thao spends time with other children whose disabilities can be linked to Agent Orange at one of the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange’s day centers.
While the Vietnamese government has done little in response to Agent Orange, The Association for Victims of Agent Orange has tried to help. It’s a non-governmental organization that recently responded to the impacts of the vestigial chemical impacts of the war. Thao is among many children and adults that rely on this association for rehabilitation from the impacts of Agent Orange.
Reparations from the United States for the lasting impacts of Agent Orange in Vietnam have been minimal. Within the last few years, the United States completed a $110 million project. That project aimed to diminish the toxicity of residual dioxin. However, they only focused on Danang International Airport where the barrels of Agent Orange were kept during the Vietnam war. The U.S. has similar plans to clean up residual chemical components of Agent Orange at the Bien Hoa Air Base.
Beyond these two projects—and beyond internal reparations the U.S. has offered American veterans affected by the chemical—the United States could provide more support to those affected by Agent Orange in Vietnam. By increasing aid for research regarding soil and water detection of dioxin, the U.S. would take steps toward further reparation.
If the U.S. took accountability for the lasting impacts of Agent Orange in Vietnam, it could make a huge difference. The U.S. could offer reparation to families, communities and regions deeply affected by the chemical. That would not only benefit many lives in Vietnam but would also advance U.S. national security interests.
– Lilia Wilson