10 Questions on Agent Orange


1 > What is Agent Orange?
2 > Why is Agent Orange dangerous?
3 > How much dioxin has been sprayed in Vietnam?
4 > What are the effects of dioxin?
5 > How many people have been exposed to herbicides in Vietnam?
6 > What is Operation Hades?
7 > Have the USA taken responsability for the damages caused by herbicides in Vietnam?
8 > Have the Agent Orange victims taken civil action?
9 > And today?
10 > Dioxin, a worldwide issue?


1 > What is Agent Orange?
It was the herbicide most heavily used by the American army during the Vietnam war. Herbicides were used to defoliate forests (to prevent the Viet Cong from hiding), to clear military areas and to destroy enemy crops. Agent Orange is actually pink-brownish. Its name comes from the orange-coloured bands that appeared on the drums in which Agent Orange was stored. Other herbicides used by the US army include Agents White, Blue, Pink, Green and Purple.

2 > Why is Agent Orange dangerous?
Two thirds of the herbicides used during the Vietnam war, notably Agent Orange (but not only Agent Orange), contained 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid for its defoliation abilities. But the production process of that acid was such that the 2,4,5-T acid obtained was more or less contaminated with an extremely toxic substance: the infamous 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD).

3 > How much dioxin has been sprayed in Vietnam?
The quantity of dioxin varied, depending on the herbicide and the manufacturer. According to the latest estimations [1], between 1961 and 1971, the US army has sprayed more than 300 kilograms of TCDD dioxin, mainly in the Southern and Central Vietnam, but also in Laos and Cambodia. To put things in perspective, the international health norms state that one person should not be exposed to more than picograms of dioxin per day. A picogram is a millionth of a millionth of a gram.

[1] J.M. Stellman, S.D. Stellman, R. Christian, T. Weber et C. Tomasallo, "The extent and patterns of usage of Agent Orange and other herbicides in Việt Nam", Nature, Volume 422, Avril 2003.

4 > What are the effects of dioxin?
Dioxin provokes cancers, foetal malformations, skin diseases... It also affects the immune system, the reproductive system and the nervous system.

5 > How many people have been exposed to herbicides in Vietnam?
According to the latest estimations [1], between 2.1 and 4.8 millions Vietnamese people were directly exposed to herbicides from 1961 to1971. One needs to add to this figure an unknown number of Cambodians, Laotians, American civilians and soldiers, and their various allies from Australia, Canada, New-Zealand and South-Korea. However, the total number of victims goes probably beyond because dioxin can be transmitted by contamination of the food chain : breast milk, cow milk, consumption of contaminated meat and fish.

[1] J.M. Stellman, S.D. Stellman, R. Christian, T. Weber et C. Tomasallo, "The extent and patterns of usage of Agent Orange and other herbicides in Viêt Nam", Nature, Volume 422, April 2003.

6 > What is Operation Hades?
It is the original name of the American military operation of defoliation by aerial means in Vietnam. This operation was given the green light by the Kennedy administration in 1961, and ended in 1971. Because "Hades" was not PR-friendly name (Hades is the god of the dead), it was changed shortly after into Ranch Hand.

7 > Have the USA taken responsability for the damages caused by herbicides in Vietnam?
No, the USA refuses all responsibility, and have never paid a cent to the many victims of Agent Orange (and other herbicides) in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

8 > Have the Agent Orange victims taken civil action?
The American veteran victims of Agent Orange took civil action against the Agent Orange manufacturers, because they did not have the right to do so against the American government. In 1984, the AO manufacturers signed a class-action settlement with the associations of veterans : in exchange of the end of all civil actions, the manufacturers agreed to pay $180 millions to a compensation fund for the American veteran victims of Agent Orange. At the beginning of 2004, the Vietnamese association of victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin has filed a US civil action against the manufacturers of Agent Orange. The two main manufacturers are Monsanto and Dow Chemical.

9 > And today?
Thirty years after the end of the war, the effects of dioxin are still present in Vietnam. There remains a non-negligible quantity of dioxin in a few hot-spots in Vietnam. There is now in Vietnam a third generation of victims of the American military herbicides.

10 > Dioxin, a worldwide issue?
Dioxin is a worldwide problem, not just in Vietnam. Indeed, common usual industrial activities involuntarily produce dioxin, notably incineration and fiber-bleaching for paper or textiles. The famous industrial accident of Seveso in Italy (1976) can attest to the dangers of dioxin all over the world.