For the generation that lived through the Vietnam War, Agent Orange is a topic mired my controversy and debate. In recent years, many programs have emerged to tackle the issue, as our own Brian Luong reported in a post months ago. However, we have come to realize that for many, if not most, of those born in the generations after the war, Agent Orange has no meaning. Few understand what it is and even less know about its effects.
Here, we want to delve into Agent Orange 101 to understand what it is, the impact it made, and what is currently being done about it.
AGENT ORANGE 101
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What is Agent Orange? Agent Orange is a chemical used by the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War from 1961 to 1971 to remove forest cover, destroy crops, and disrupt agriculture food production. It is called “Agent Orange” because of the orange band that identifies the barrel the chemical came in. There were also Agents Purple, Green, and Pink.
What’s Bad About It? The production of the chemical created a useless but extremely dangerous byproduct named TCDD, more commonly called Dioxin. Dioxin is poisonous to humans and has been shown to cause serious diseases and deformities to those directly exposed to it and to their children.
How Widespread Was It? The estimates vary. According to a congressional report, 2.1 to 4.8 million people were directly exposed to Agent Orange. Below is a map of areas in Vietnam sprayed with herbicide:
The report states that between 1961 and 1971, 12 million gallons of Agent Orange was sprayed over nearly 10% of South Vietnam.
The chemical have been shown to cause serious skin diseases as well as a vast variety of cancers in the lungs, larynx, and prostate. Other effects include cleft palate, mental disabilities, hernias, and extra fingers and toes. The scariest impact is that the disease and deformities caused by the chemical can span across generations.
By the numbers:
- 2.1 to 4.8 million affected
- 400,000 deaths and disabilities
- 500,000 children born with birth defects
What Happened After:
A series of lawsuits came about when people started realizing and experiencing the effects of Agent Orange. Those lawsuits culminated into a class action lawsuit in the 1980′s by U.S. Veterans versus the chemical companies that produced Agent Orange. There were 37 companies involved. The major ones were Dow Chemical, Monsanto (now Solutia), Diamond Shamrock, Hercules, and Uniroyal.
In 2005, a similar lawsuit was filed by the Vietnamese Victims of Agent Orange against the chemical companies that produced the defoliant/herbicides. However, the same judge from the 1984 trial dismissed the lawsuit, the reason being “that the use of these chemicals during the war, although they were toxic, did not in his opinion fit the definition of ‘chemical warfare’ and therefore did not violate international law.”
In 2009, the US Supreme Court once again dismissed the lawsuit of Vietnamese Victims of Agent Orange.
In recently years, numerous programs have sprung up to help decontaminate affected areas as well as provide care and compensation for victims. In 2007, President Bush passed a bill that allocated $3 million in funding to remedy “dioxin hotspots.” In 2009, President Obama signed a bill to double that aid, ensuring $6 million to the program.
There are numerous efforts by NGOs, like East Meets West Foundation, that spread awareness and rally our community to tackle the issue head-on. The fact remains that there are hundreds of thousands of people in Vietnam still suffering from the effects of Agent Orange.
Personally, I believe this issue should be kept free from politics. At the end of the day, there are people suffering and too few hands helping. It is an ongoing humanitarian issue and our resources should not be wasted litigating the past. If you are interested in helping out or raising awareness, I work with several groups trying to do just that. Feel free to contact me, James Bao, at jhbao @ onevietnam.org.