More than 50 years after the Vietnam War, U.S. herbicide warfare programs have been associated with numerous health risks in veterans and civilians.
Located 16 miles from Ho Chi Minh City, Bien Hoa Air Base is an obscure former South Vietnamese military base that is remembered in America only by military history enthusiasts.
At Bien Hoa, U.S. air force pilots served alongside their South Vietnamese counterparts to battle North Vietnamese forces. Today, the air base is deserted and overgrown with weeds, surrounded by warning signs that mark the land as a dioxin-contaminated site with a few Vietnamese soldiers standing guard.
Between 1961 and 1971, the U.S. military sprayed an estimated 18 to 20 million gallons of herbicides in South Vietnam, including about 11 to 12 million gallons of Agent Orange. Known as Operation Ranch Hand, the herbicide warfare program contaminated Vietnamese soil and defoliated roughly five million acres of forests during the war in Vietnam. The toxic effects of dioxin, a chemical compound found in Agent Orange, continue to linger for veterans who served in U.S. wars in Asia and civilians living in heavily contaminated regions.
Developed after World War II to kill weeds, herbicides were quickly adopted by the military and used in exponential amounts to clear forests. The defoliation of trails in South Vietnam was intended to tactically increase visibility, improve U.S. bomb targeting in dense mountainous regions, and deprive North Vietnamese soldiers of access to crops. While Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” first publicized the harmful human and environmental effects of insecticides and herbicides in 1962, it was not until 1975 that coalitions of environmental activists and scientists successfully pressured the U.S. government to ban the use of herbicides in war.
Dioxin, created as a byproduct of Agent Orange, has been associated with birth defects, cancer, diabetes, auto- immune diseases, and other health concerns in American and Vietnamese war veterans, Vietnamese civilians, and their children. The United States Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) has recognized several types of cancer that are linked to Agent Orange exposure, including chronic B-cell leukemias, lymphoma, and prostate cancer (one of the most common cancers among men).
“Veterans may be eligible for disability compensation if they have a disability related to Agent Orange exposure during service and were discharged under other than dishonorable conditions,” the VA says on their website. The VA’s Agent Orange Registry health exam also
“alerts veterans to possible long-term problems that may be related to Agent Orange exposure during their military service.”
However, some veterans and their family members say they could not receive compensation because their illnesses were not officially included in the VA’s presumptive disease list. Though the “presumptive service connection” policy does not require veterans to prove a direct incident of exposure to Agent Orange to demonstrate correlation, the policy still excludes Vietnam War veterans afflicted with currently unlisted diseases. Pegi Scarlett, widow of Vietnam War veteran John Scarlett, says her husband’s glioblastoma—an aggressive form of brain cancer—was not recognized for disability compensation. After creating a database of more than 270 veterans who have been diagnosed with the disease, Scarlett says she is ready for the VA to recognize these conditions “so that families, veterans, and widows will be able to submit a claim and receive the benefits that they deserve.”
For the more than 2.7 million American veterans who served in Vietnam, many are only now experiencing the symptoms associated with dioxin exposure. More than 50 years later, scientists are still finding new ties between exposure to dioxin and its numerous complications. In March 2016, a study from the National Academy of Medicine identified bladder cancer as one of four new health conditions that are likely linked to Agent Orange. The VA has not yet announced a final decision about including these conditions on the presumptive disease list, which would allow affected veterans to access disability compensation and VA health care.
For the more than 2.7 million American veterans who served in Vietnam, many are only now experiencing the symptoms associated with dioxin exposure.
In January 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals determined that Vietnam veterans who served on offshore ships—including sailors and marines—are eligible for the same disability benefits as those who served on land. The ruling, dubbed Blue Water Navy, emphasized the wide range of veterans responsible for the transport and disposal of the chemical across the Pacific. After Agent Orange was banned, the U.S. government incinerated most of the remaining chem- ical stock on Johnston Atoll, an unincorporated U.S. territory in the Pacific Ocean.
Research on the enduring impact of dioxin on soil, water, and food supply has uncovered new concerns. In an article published by the Open Journal of Soil Science, Dr. Kenneth Ray Olson and Dr. Lois Wright Morton say the half-life of dioxin varies based on where it is stored and can linger for as long as 20 to 50 years in tropical subsoils and more than 100 years in water sediments. In dioxin hotspots such as Bien Hoa Air Base, dioxin contaminated soil and sediments have spread from the military base to adjacent urban regions like Saigon and Bien Hoa City.
“Local Vietnamese living in nearby cities breathe the contaminated dust, cultivate dioxin contaminated soil which can be absorbed by their skin, and still eat bottom feeding fish and mollusk harvested from lakes adjacent to the hotspots,” Olson and Wright Morton say. Their studies show that dioxin bioaccumulates in fatty tissue, and can travel through the food chain from aquatic species to small mammals and, eventually, to humans.
Though the U.S. government has allocated some funds to clean up dioxin-contaminated bases in Vietnam, the remediation process is long and expensive. While the U.S. completed a decontamination campaign at Da Nang International Airport in 2017, efforts to clean up Bien
Hoa Air Base—regarded by the United States Agency for International Development as the most contaminated remaining site—only began this year. Congress has appropriated approximately $255 million between 2007 and 2017 for Agent Orange remediation.
In Vietnam, more than four million people were exposed to Agent Orange during the war, with approximately one million living with health problems associated with dioxin, according to the Vietnamese Red Cross. However, there is insufficient funding for civilians living with disabilities related to chemical exposure.
Vietnamese civilians with exposure-related diseases do not have access to disability compensation from the Vietnamese government, and the burden of caring for disabled civilians often falls on their family members. Much of U.S. funding allocated to humanitarian aid in Vietnam has been used in cleanup efforts, with only a small portion allocated to establish health and disability programs to assist civilians living in contaminated areas.
Moreover, children of both veterans and civilians continue to live with birth defects linked to Agent Orange. According to a 2016 study by ProPublica, “The odds of having a child born with birth defects were more than a third higher for veterans exposed to Agent Orange than for those who weren’t.” However, the VA has not scrutinized its own data on these associated health conditions, and provides limited disability benefits for children of veterans. Vietnamese children of civilians exposed to the defoliant are vulnerable to physical and mental disabilities at birth, and many develop serious health problems as adults. Nonprofit organizations such as the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA) operates day care centers for disabled children and rehabilitation, providing social and economic support for those who face discrimination because of their disabilities. VAVA has filed three lawsuits in the U.S. against the 37 chemical companies involved in manufacturing Agent Orange. However, the court ruled that there was insufficient evidence linking these health conditions to chemical exposures.
To date, families affected by Agent Orange in Vietnam and the United States still face devastating physical, emotional, and financial costs. Linking the experiences of American and Vietnamese veterans and civilians across national and cultural borders, dioxin exposure is an urgent environmental concern that demands collaborations between U.S. and Vietnamese government officials, nonprofit organizations, and environmental scientists. While many of dioxin’s long- term effects remain unknown, it is clear that more must be done for the human lives at stake.