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Agent Orange, Dioxin, and the Vietnam War: Still in the news 40 years later

Posted: November 13th, 2012 | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

Recently it was reported that the American and Vietnamese governments have taken on a massive $43 million environmental clean-up project in Vietnam. If you did not serve in the armed forces during the Vietnam War, you may not be familiar with Agent Orange.

Agent Orange is a tactical herbicide developed by the US Department of Defense that was used to remove trees and dense tropical vegetation in the region during the Vietnam War from 1962 to 1971. In the process, about 5 million acres of vegetation were destroyed, and Danang airbase, the area where Agent Orange was once stored and mixed is now a dry, dead field that is still closed to the public. Agent Orange received its name from the orange stripe on the 55-gallon drums the chemical came in.

Agent Orange is an herbicide/defoliant that causes leaves to fall off of plants and contains dioxin. Dioxin is a highly toxic environmental contaminant produced by industrial waste. The toxic dioxin component in Agent Orange, known as TCDD, can be very harmful  even in trace amounts, but exposure is rare. However, U.S. military personnel serving in Vietnam between 1962 and 1875 are “presumed to have been exposed to herbicides” (including Agent Orange), according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The VA offers an Agent Orange Registry health exam for any exposed veterans and care or disability benefits for health conditions associated with Agent Orange exposure.

U.S. servicemen and women were not the only ones exposed to Agent Orange during the war. Citizens in Vietnam were also exposed and there are lingering effects of exposure in that region.  Prolonged exposure to Agent Orange is believed to cause birth defects and some cancers. Side effects of trace (or small) exposures are still being investigated.

The Danang airbase in Vietnam where Agent Orange was stored continues to be a hot spot for dioxin contamination and this is where the U.S. environmental clean-up project will begin. The decontamination of the soil around the airbase will be performed by excavating the soil/sediment in a pile structure and heated to a high temperature that will destroy any harmful dioxins.

Since the Vietnam War, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of any herbicide that contains some of the most harmful dioxins, reducing dangerous exposures to TCDD in the U.S.

For more information about Agent Orange, visit the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs Agent Orange page.

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