Legacies of War: Agent Orange (Dioxin)

A US Army Helicopter Sprays Agent OrangeUsed to defoliate jungle areas that gave cover to the North Vietnamese, Agent Orange was among several herbicides dropped on huge swathes of Vietnam during the War. Its deadly ingredient, dioxin, has been found to cause a range of health problems, from hydrocephalus and several kinds of cancers to diabetes and skin diseases to physical deformities such as missing limbs. Estimates of how much Agent Orange was sprayed on the country between 1961 and 1971 vary, but range as high as 75 million litres. Vietnam has estimated that 400,000 people were killed or maimed by the defoliants, that 500,000 children have been born with birth defects as a result, and two million more have suffered directly or indirectly from its effects.

Effect on the environment

In addition to causing bodily harm to generations of Vietnamese, Agent Orange has had a toxic effect on the environment, remaining in the soil and poisoning the food chain. Lakes in heavily sprayed areas still exist today where the fish are unsafe to eat - contaminated a generation after the war ended - and there is still talk of evacuating some of the most affected areas.

Compensation for those affected

In May 2009, the International People’s Tribunal of Conscience, convened in Paris, issued a judgment that the use of this poison by the US military during the War was a war crime, and that compensation should be given to the victims, as well as efforts made to clean up affected land. This decision followed decades of failed efforts by Vietnamese groups to successfully sue the US government and chemical manufacturers for damages, despite the fact that American veterans of the Vietnam War have been compensated by the government to the tune of US$1.52 billion. As recently as February 2009, the latest appeal by AO victims suing the chemical manufacturers was rejected by a US court. However, appeals will likely continue, at least as long as the effects of AO are so visible in Vietnam.

Most recently (29 May 2009), President Obama doubled US funding for dealing with the consequences of Agent Orange in Vietnam from US$3 to US$6 million – not enough to make a significant difference, perhaps, but an important gesture all the same.

For more information, or to find out how to help, check out these links:
Christina Noble's Childrens foundation

The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City has also assembled a good array of evidence detailing the effects of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese population.

Contributed by Nell McShane Wulfhart