Agent Orange: A Legacy of Vietnam

Agent Orange: A Legacy of Vietnam
There are many Vietnam Veterans who have been suffering from a wide range of health ailments. Some of these ailments are believed to be linked to a substance called Agent Orange. These veterans, who served their country in Vietnam, have had to wage another battle against the US Government. Gary LaPorte is one of those veterans. LaPorte served in Vietnam with the Army’s 523<sup>rd</sup> Engineering Company from January 1970 until February 1972. He began experiencing unexplained health issues, such as chronic body aches and swollen lymph nodes, not long after returning from Vietnam. Like many Vietnam War Veterans, he was turned away by the Veterans Administration several times with little resolution. The U.S. Government tried to claim, for many years, the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam was not responsible for the wide variety of health issues suffered by veterans who served there; however, scientific evidence is forcing the government to acknowledge the connection between Agent Orange and many of these ailments.

Agent Orange was a defoliant used during the Vietnam War to clear jungle vegetation, as well as food crops. “Between 1961 and 1971 herbicide mixtures, nicknamed by the colored identification band painted on their 208-litre storage barrels, were used by United States and Republic of Vietnam forces to defoliate forests and mangroves, to clear perimeters of military installations and to destroy ‘unfriendly’ crops as a tactic for decreasing enemy food supplies��? (Stellman). While there were other colors used to identify the various defoliants, the most widely used was Agent Orange. The danger Agent Orange poses mainly comes from a chemical it contains called dioxin. “About 65% of the herbicides contained 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T), which was contaminated with varying levels of 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin��? (Stellman). The U.S. made the Republic of South Vietnam (RVN) take ownership of the barrels that entered the country. The official U.S. policy was to assist the RVN with their spraying program (Stellman). This was an early attempt to release the U.S. Government from any liability from the use of Agent Orange. However, “US Air Force (USAF) operations, codenamed Operation Ranch Hand, dispersed more than 95% of all herbicides used in Operation Trail Dust, the overall herbicide programme��? (Stellman). Vietnam was not the only country in which Agent Orange was used during the Vietnam War. Laos and Cambodia, countries that bordered Vietnam, were targeted for spraying on several occasions. Missions were flown outside of South Vietnam in 1965, for the first time, over the country of Laos in an attempt to defoliate the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a main supply route (Stellman). Stellman goes on to explain that even though it was official U.S. policy not to spray Agent Orange over Cambodia, new documents have come to light proving the U.S. was flying spray missions over Cambodia. Gary LaPorte remembers going on supply missions into Cambodia nine months before the U.S. officially announced a presence there. He also recalls the surrounding jungle in that area to have clear evidence that a defoliant was used. The spraying in Cambodia has had the same effects on the people and environment as in Vietnam, even though it took a study reported in Nature magazine for the United States to admit that spraying had taken place (Griffiths, 140).

The chemical dioxin, which is present in Agent Orange, is believed to be the cause of many ailments suffered by Vietnam Veterans. Lamar’s article explains that just a tiny amount of dioxin has been known to kill some animals in laboratory experiments and in other animals, various cancers and birth defects occurred. The complete effects of dioxin in humans are not yet completely known. However, “it is known to alter cell growth, hormones, and growth factors with more severe and consistent effects coming in the early stages of development��? (Palmer). The drug chloroquine, which was given to soldiers on a weekly basis to ward off malaria, inhibits enzymes in the body that metabolize neurotoxins (Longman). Longman, in his report, also quotes “Alan B. Oates, who heads the VVA’s Agent Orange committee, ‘Vietnam veterans were taking prescribed medication that reduced their body’s ability to detoxify itself while being subjected to exposures of neurotoxins.’��?  LaPorte was given chloroquine on a weekly basis during his service in Vietnam, but was unaware of its ability to weaken the body to toxins. Veterans were not the only ones affected by Agent Orange. New generations of victims were being born to veterans. A number of Vietnam Veterans began having children who were born with spina bifida, which is now recognized by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs as being connected with Agent Orange (“Agent Orange��?). The damaging effects of dioxin were also felt in another part of the world in a separate instance. In 1976 a chemical plant in Italy exploded, exposing a nearby village to large amounts of dioxin, resulting in outbreaks of Chloracne, a disfiguring skin condition, in humans and many dead animals throughout the area (Lamar). This incident convinced a large number of veterans that Agent Orange was the cause of many of the ailments they were suffering.
Long before the explosion in Italy, the U.S. Government and the chemical companies that manufactured Agent Orange knew of the health effects associated with dioxin. A particularly damning piece of evidence in this regard surfaced in an article from 1983 that stated,

In a confidential letter written in 1965, during a time when the Government was purchasing millions of pounds of Agent Orange, Dow’s toxicology director wrote to another Dow official that dioxin ‘is exceptionally toxic; it has tremendous potential for producing chloracne [an ugly skin disease] and systemic injury. . . I trust that you will be very judicious in your use of this information. It could be quite embarrassing if it were misinterpreted or misused.’ A postscript added, ‘Under no circumstances may this letter be reproduced, shown or sent to anyone outside of Dow.’ (“No Longer��?)

This letter showed that employees of the Dow Chemical Company participated in hiding the effects their product could have on humans. Another piece of evidence was a study by the National Cancer Institute in 1969 which showed dioxin to have caused laboratory animals to have stillborn offspring 80% of the time, and others to be born deformed 39% of the time (“The Agent Orange Affair��?). In 1987 an article by Gardner stated the U.S. Government claimed there was no definitive connection between Agent Orange and any disease other than Chloracne. However, at the time, dioxin was known to cause cancer. These are just a few examples of how the facts about Agent Orange were ignored through the years. The pattern of neglect and denial started to come to an end with the passage of the Agent Orange Act of 1991. In this bill the Government took the first steps in acknowledging the connection between certain health ailments and exposure to Agent Orange. The bill established a presumption of exposure for any veteran that served in Vietnam; it established an agreement between the government and the National Academy of Sciences to study other diseases and their connection to Agent Orange (“Agent Orange Act of 1991��?).

Even with the passage of the Agent Orange Act of 1991 allowing some veterans to receive benefits for certain ailments, there has always been red tape and resistance from the Government. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has been resistant to any full blown study into Agent Orange since the Vietnam War ended in 1975. Based on pilot studies in the 1980’s, the VA claimed there was not enough evidence at the time to warrant the full-on investigation that was requested by Congress in 1979 (“A ghost��?). “In 2003, the US Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommended that the VA should commission a large-scale, independent epidemiological study on how the herbicide affected the health of veterans��? (Butler). This recommendation went unanswered by the VA. The VA is still finding ways to deny veterans benefits. Longman writes in his article, “A Hard Way to Die,��? about a man who was denied benefits from the VA for Parkinson’s disease, a disease that was just added to the list of associated diseases on October 30, 2010. In rejecting him, the VA said his 14 years of smoking or his work at a water treatment plant could have been the cause of his disease. Gary LaPorte had issues similar to this with the Veterans Administration. Early on doctors at the VA Clinic claimed they could never find anything wrong with him when he would come in to seek answers about the health problems he was having. One doctor even called for a psychological exam, claiming it was all in his head. Laporte said, “My experience with the government was frustrating because I was looking for answers, and never got them.��?

U.S. Vietnam Veterans were not the only group of people to be affected by exposure to Agent Orange. Vietnamese citizens, and the land they live on, continue to this day to be affected by it. A group in Vietnam called the Vietnam Association for the Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA) says the lingering effect of exposure to Agent Orange has caused birth defects in multiple generations (Griffin). There are some Vietnamese living in what are called “hot spots.��? These areas are called that because of the high concentrations of dioxin still contaminating the soil. “People living near these ‘hot spots’ have 35 to 100 times the amount of acceptable dioxin levels in their blood��? (Albert). Vietnam is a poor country lacking the resources to clean up these “hot spots,��? therefore the contaminated land remains impossible to live on or farm safely.

There are people that believe Agent Orange, more specifically the dioxin it contains, is not the cause of the ailments and diseases suffered by Vietnam Veterans. One of these people is Michael Gould Ph.D. who, in 1991, claimed there is little evidence dioxin was causing veteran’s illnesses. I found evidence to the contrary in a report by Michael Palmer which stated,

The argument is particularly strong here where afflictions attributable to Agent Orange are potentially so wide and beyond the present limits of science. It was after all not until the 1990s that the aryl hydrocarbon (“Ah”) receptor or mechanism by which dioxin affects multiple cell functions was discovered and yet the exact mechanism through which dioxin compounds extend their effects remains uncertain.

Gough also asserts that popular politics of his time was driving the debate on Agent Orange and science doesn’t back up the claim.  He went on to state that dioxin is an extremely stable, very slowly metabolized, strongly lipophilic chemical. Palmer, in his article, wrote about a September 2000 report put out by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which stated dioxin, especially the kind in Agent Orange, had the potential to cause many human health effects. This contradicts Gough’s earlier assertions.

For years the U.S. Government has knowingly been trying to back out of its obligations to care for Vietnam Veterans. Veterans should be able to feel they are going to be taken care of by the government when they suffer service related health issues. The U.S. Government admitted, as early as 1961, it was aware of the toxic effect Agent Orange had on plants, animals and humans (Palmer). In 1971, the Surgeon General of the United States mandated that dioxin be regulated when manufactured for home use due to the harmful effects (Griffiths, 169). Even with all of the information available to the government at the time Agent Orange was being used, the decision was made to still use it. This resulted in a pattern of neglect, cover up, and denial. Veterans who have put their lives on the line for their country deserve better. They deserve full disclosure and assistance from the government in dealing with the ailments they have suffered from Agent Orange.


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