Agent Orange: US still attacking the people of Vietnam 35 years on

Despite the Vietnam War ending 35 years ago the US chemical bombardment of Vietnam is still claiming victims. More than 3 million Vietnamese have suffered the effects of Agent Orange — the nickname given to dioxin rich herbicides sprayed by the US military over large parts of central and southern Vietnam. The Vietnamese Red Cross estimates up to 3 million Vietnamese children and adults have suffered health problems related to Agent Orange exposure, and that there are a million victims in Vietnam today, many of them children born with serious deformities, as a result of their parents’ exposure to the chemical.

One of millions of post-war victims in Vietnam,
August 2006.

Between 1961 and 1971 around 45 million litres of Agent Orange was sprayed, spilled or dumped in Vietnam. Dioxin is a class-one human carcinogen that isn’t diluted by water and is chemically stable so it doesn’t easily decompose. That is why it still exists in concentrated forms today, infiltrating the ecosystems and food chains in many parts of Vietnam. This is how the deadly chemical continues to claim its new prey — people who live off the land and water systems contaminated by it. And the dioxin in their blood gets passed on to their offspring, including through breast milk.

A public health study by Columbia University, the results of which were published in the magazine Nature in 2003, found that “up to 4.8 million Vietnamese were living in 3,181 villages that were directly showered with Agent Orange” and that dioxin levels are four times higher today than what was previously predicted. On March 29, 2003, the British Guardian reported that US dioxin expert Arnold Schecter had found that soil samples from Bien Hoa, former site of a US base, contained dioxin levels 180 million times above the safe level set by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Bien Hoa is one of about 50 dioxin “hot spots”, many of which were US military bases where Agent Orange was spilt or dumped by pilots when spray runs were aborted.

The US Veterans Affairs department recognises the following “side effects” arising from Agent Orange: prostate cancer, respiratory cancers, multiple myeloma, Type 2 diabetes, Hodgkin’s disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, soft-tissue sarcoma, chloracne, porphyria cutanea tarda, peripheral neuropathy and spina bifida. A 1983 international conference on dioxin in Ho Chi Minh City highlighted many varieties of birth defects that were common in Vietnam after the end of the US war in 1975 that were rare in other parts of the world: malformed nervous systems (including anencephalus or the absence of the brain — sometimes entirely); deformed (including absence of) eyes, ears and noses; facial and auricular anomalies; deformed (including absence of) limbs; conjoined twins; cleft lips and cleft palates. Dioxin is also also known to cause hydrocephalus, childhood cancers, intrauterine growth retardation, miscarriages, premature births and low birth-weights.

The bastards knew

In his 1987 book Agent Orange on Trial, Peter Schuck reported that the companies that manufactured Agent Orange knew “as early as 1952” that deadly dioxin had contaminated the herbicide. A declassified letter by Verald Rowe at Dow’s Biochemical Research Library to bioproducts manager Ross Milholland dated June 24, 1965, clearly stated that the company knew the dioxin in its products, including Agent Orange, could damage people’s health. In reference to 2,4,5-trichlorophenol and 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzodioxin (components of Agent Orange), Rowe stated: “This material is exceptionally toxic; it has a tremendous potential for producing chloracne (chemical skin disfigurement) and systemic injury.”

There is also strong evidence from as early as 1967 that the US government was aware of the toxicity of dioxin. James Clary, a US Air Force scientist in Vietnam closely involved in the Agent Orange operation, wrote in 1988 to a member of Congress: “[We] were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide. We were even aware that the ‘military’ formulation had a higher dioxin concentration than the ‘civilian’ version, due to the lower cost and speed of manufacture. However, because the material was to be used on the ‘enemy’, none of us were overly concerned.” While US military have always described the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam as a “herbicide program” they knew Agent Orange was a chemical weapon. In US Senate records dated August 11, 1969, a table presented to senators showed that congress clearly classified 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T (main components of Agent Orange) in the Chemical and Biological Warfare category.

Decontamination isn’t an easy option, either for humans or the soil. The March 29, 2003 British Guardian quoted a World Health Organisation warning: “Once TCCD [dioxin] has entered the body it is there to stay due to its uncanny ability to dissolve in [body] fats and its rock solid chemical stability.” At Aluoi, a dioxin-contaminated hot spot, the WHO recommended decontamination by searing the land with temperatures of more than 1000oC, or encasing it in concrete before treating it chemically. Neither option would be easy for a poor country like Vietnam.

While cash-strapped, the Vietnamese government began providing financial assistance to Agent Orange victims in 2000 and has initiated mass education through trade unions, women’s and youth organisations and local resident organisations throughout the country to raise awareness of the problem and the need for solidarity. In Hanoi on January 10, 2004, the Vietnam Association for the Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA) was formed to help protect the rights of victims and represent them with domestic and international agencies and organisations. They chose August 10, the date the US first sprayed Agent Orange in 1961, as the annual day for Agent Orange victims. Last year a charity event and a walk in Ho Chi Minh City collected money from across the country for Agent Orange victims.

US offers pittance

On June 16 this year, members of the US–Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange announced in Hanoi their “Action Plan” to resolve the Agent Orange problem in Vietnam. The dialogue group (comprised of scientists and concerned citizens from both countries) called for US$300 million over a 10-year period to fund programs for Agent Orange victims. VAVA politely welcomed this initiative but in statement in response also noted: “It is clear that, in the next 10 years, Vietnam will spend billions of dollars addressing the Agent Orange problem. Much of this amount will be spent on monthly assistance payments to those most seriously affected and for meeting urgent needs of victims. While the action plan and proposed budget of $300 million is absolutely modest compared to the actual scope of what is needed to address the suffering of the people and the damage to the environment caused by Agent Orange, the effort is well appreciated and highly valued in this time when Vietnam is still poor and the needs of victims are immense.

“However, we would like to note that after years of bearing the pain of diseases on their bodies, many victims of Agent Orange, especially those who have aged and those suffering severe conditions, are now living in much more extreme poverty due to their inability to work and the need for expensive daily medical treatment. For them, 10 years or even 5 years is an eternity — too long to sustain. Thus, while implementation of the ‘Action Plan’ is being discussed, studied and planned, we hope that these victims’ needs for immediate relief and will be given the highest priority because they absolutely and urgently need care now.”

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on a visit to Vietnam on July 22, announced that the US government would commit the $300 million over 10 years. While acting like a generous benefactor, full of self-congratulation, Clinton’s offer is a pittance given the scope of the problem and the fact that of the $3-5 billion in compensation for war damage promised by President Nixon under article 21 of the 1973 Paris peace agreement not one cent has been paid.

Efforts are currently under way to form a group in cities around Australia in solidarity with the victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam. If you are interested, contact John Percy at or Direct Action at (02) 9310 5608.