By Karen Dougherty
Between the years of 1961 and 1971, 20 million gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed over the forests of Vietnam raining down on servicemen and civilians alike. A by-product of Agent Orange manufacturing was a highly toxic form of dioxin known as TCDD. Although both the U.S. government and the chemical companies producing Agent Orange were aware that even at low levels this lethal chemical cocktail produced birth defects, spraying continued unabated until 1969.
The consequences of this tragedy continue to unfold in this country as Vietnam Vets suffer debilitating and terminal illnesses. Both here and in Vietnam thousands of innocent victims who never even witnessed the war continue to be affected. Dioxin, one of the most highly toxic chemicals known, is a teratogen. Teratogens are chemicals that cause birth defects. Dioxin exposure can occur through inhalation, ingestion and even absorption through the skin. There are many accounts of men, women and children getting soaked from the sticky, fruity smelling chemical shower delivered by low-flying planes. Offspring of Vietnam Vets may suffer a litany of health problems due to their parents’ exposure to Agent Orange. Often, even the grandchildren of Vietnam Vets continue this legacy of health problems.
As tragic as this situation is for American veterans, imagine the millions of people in Vietnam who continue to live in this ecological cesspool, drinking Dioxin-contaminated water and eating food grown in Dioxin-contaminated soil. The local Vietnamese have a name for the babies who continue to be born with severe physical and mental deformities; they are known as Agent Orange babies. It is not uncommon to hear stories of Vietnamese families with fifteen children, twelve of them dying before the age of three. Children are still being born with malformed and twisted limbs and severe mental deformities. Hospitals and care centers are already stretched to capacity trying to care for these victims. As their parents continue to age, who will care for those who are living at home unable to do even the simplest tasks for themselves?
The cleanup costs for the 1.4 billion hectares of Vietnam’s land ravaged by Agent Orange is exorbitant. Dr. Pierre Vermeulin, a chemist, estimates the cost to restore one hectare of land to be $1 billion. Although President Nixon promised $3.25 billion dollars in aid to Vietnam, it was never granted. Recently, President Obama has signed a bill increasing cleanup funding for Vietnam from $3 million to $6 million.
Dr. Jeanne Stellman, a professor at Columbia University and expert on Agent Orange exposure, has called the reckless spraying of Agent Orange “the largest unstudied environmental disaster in the world (except for natural disasters).” In reading accounts of the anguish and suffering continuing in Vietnam today, it is hard to disagree with her assessment.