The Environmental Analysis of the Agent Orange in the Vietnam War

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The Vietnam War (1954 – 1975) was a highly controversial and devastating war which involved one of the most toxic substances known to man. Agent Orange was the most dangerous of the cocktails of herbicides used in the war, used to eliminate the dense jungle cover and crops used by the opposing North Vietnamese forces. This essay seeks to analyse the environmental and social effects of Agent Orange on the environment and population of Vietnam.

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A byproduct of Agent Orange is TCDD, a highly toxic dioxin which is a persistent organic pollutant (POP) that can remain in subsurface soil for decades or even centuries, having a profound, long-lasting impact on affected environments. Its long lifespan and accumulation in fatty tissue make it resistant to being released from an organism and coupled with the process of biomagnification, TCDD’s presence spreads through the food chain and the environment, contaminating soil, water, sediment and both terrestrial and aquatic species. The tree leaves coated by the aeroplanes spraying Agent Orange eventually fell, where TCDD molecules seeped into the soil. Then the soil was transported by rain (and other natural events) as runoff and made its way into the sediments of rivers, wetlands (and other water sources). Bottom feeding marine organisms would ingest the contaminated sediment and would subsequently be consumed by other fish. Eventually, many if not all the organisms in an ecosystem contaminated by TCDD would have the toxin in their system and would start experiencing its effects. In animals, these include but are not limited to liver enlargement, liver lesions, cancer and endocrine disruption, an essential body system responsible for the regulation of metabolism, growth and sexual function. The species living in the Agent Orange contaminated rivers and terrestrial areas of Vietnam will continue to experience these effects and as the quality and stability of the environment gradually decline, will struggle more so than they currently do.

Many of the villages in Vietnam rely on agriculture and fishing as their sources of food but suffer the consequences of a dioxin-contaminated food supply. For those living in affected areas, 90% of their exposure to dioxins is through the food supply. “Even in children never sprayed with Agent Orange, dioxin is getting into the Vietnamese people through highly contaminated foods, including duck, chicken, and fish,” said Dr Arnold Schecter of the University of Texas School of Public Health (see source 6.). Normal concentrations of TCDD in food are less than 0.1 ppt but ducks were found with concentrations of up to 331 ppt (parts per trillion), chickens with up to 15 ppt and fish with up to 66 ppt. The highest concentrations of the toxin were found in the fat of an animal (550 ppt), quite relevant because according to an analysis of Vietnam Living Standard Survey (VLSS) from 1992-93 and 1997-98, there was a diet shift in the late 1990s to meat, fish and other higher-fat proteins amongst the Vietnamese people. This meant that in addition to environmental exposure, civilians were increasing their exposure to TCDD through their food consumption. The short-term effects of dioxins on the human body are skin lesions such as chloracne and altered liver function. The long-term effects include but are not limited to neurobehavioural impairment, cancer, birth defects in offspring and the disruption of the endocrine system. Due to its chemical stability and resistance to environmental degradation, TCDD will continue to taint the food supply of those living in sprayed areas and will continue to harm newer Vietnamese generations.

Though the Vietnam War ended over 45 years ago, its effects are still seen amongst the younger generations, who receive conditions caused either by the dioxins in their food or by birth defects. The Dong Nai province is one of the worst contaminated areas in Vietnam, where 16 of its 28 lakes are reported to have dangerously high concentrations of dioxin, caused by the spraying of Agent Orange in the Vietnam war. Bien Hoa, a city in the province is highly contaminated, due to a spill of Agent Orange at the Bien Hoa Airbase in 1971 that spilled thousands of litres of the herbicide into the environment. Studies in Bien Hoa City state that “Typical blood concentrations of TCDD among Vietnamese people are 2 ppt (parts per trillion), but concentrations as high as 413 ppt were found in Bien Hoa City.” (see source 6.). Those suffering from conditions caused by environmental dioxin contamination often will receive a compensation of 1.8 million dong a month (115 AUD) from the government, as it can be medically proven that a condition has been caused by dioxin through a blood test. However, many do not qualify for the compensation and are only are given 200,000 dong a month (12.80 AUD) as part of physical disability assistance. Some receive no compensation whatsoever. This is because it is extremely hard to identify from a medical standpoint whether an illness or condition has occurred naturally or genetically. There are no tests that can prove that a genetic illness has been caused by Agent Orange, and many families with affected children are left with no affordable options to improve their child’s quality of life. Some children are forced to wait out their illness, as their parents cannot afford life-saving surgeries and unfortunately some will succumb to their condition. Others, who may not have life-threatening conditions may have disabilities or conditions such as cleft palate, spina bifida, missing or deformed limbs, down syndrome, neural tube defects or deformities of sensory organs.

As a result of the use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War, part of Vietnam’s environment and population has been put under intense stress for over 45 years and will continue to for many decades to come, unless the Vietnamese and U.S governments improve their efforts in decontaminating the Agent Orange affected land and people. Decontaminating the land through incineration will eliminate possible exposure to TCDD through direct contact or food. This means that the number of cases will almost cease to grow. Further research can be done into reducing or eradicating the risk of birth defects and genetical conditions in the womb. If the Vietnamese and U.S governments commit to these strategies, then hopefully the presence of TCDD in Vietnam will be extremely limited or absent.

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