Agent Orange

agent orange

I met my wife, Michelle, a few years after my dad died. She often tells me that she wishes she could have gotten to know him and talked with him. At the very least, she wishes she could have met him. However, she never will because he is dead. She knows him in the pictures on our walls, and the stories we recount, but this is the only way she will ever know him. My youngest niece will never know her grandpa, as he died a little after her first birthday. She too knows him only in pictures, and through our stories. They both know of his accomplishments and victories. They know what he did throughout his life, where he lived, where he served and the kind of person he was. However, this is all they will ever know. They will only ever know a faint shadow of who he was as they glance at an old picture or listen to family stories.

Why is it that my wife and youngest niece will only ever know my father through the stories I share with them, or as that-guy-in-those-photos? What measure of cruelty was put forth, cursing him with an incurable, and fatal illness? The substance that altered my father’s body is commonly referred to as Agent Orange, as it was stored in a barrel wrapped in an orange stripe. There were several other “agents” used during our tenure in Vietnam that had similar names, as they were kept in barrels with various colored stripes. These herbicides are part of larger group of chemical weapons called defoliants, or tactical herbicides. As the name suggests, these weapons were used to eat away the jungle growth, making the trees and vegetation wither under the weight of the America military

From our perspective in history, the employment of Agent Orange was a mistake, and the United States government has begrudgingly agreed, insofar as they have agreed to provide benefits and assistance to affected veterans and their families. To this day, the only American government institution (or institution connected with the US government) that recognizes Agent Orange as a cause of cancer, and many other health issues, is the Veterans Administration. The American Cancer Society, for example, states that “(m)ost studies of Vietnam veterans have not shown an increase in non-Hodgkin lymphoma”. They repeat this statement for other cancers and conditions associated with exposure to Agent Orange.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIH), a sub division of the National Institute of Health, comes close to declaring Agent Orange the root cause of various cancers, however they stop short of stating this. The closest the NIH comes to suggesting Agent Orange is capable of causing cancer, and numerous other illnesses, is stating that one of the ingredients of Agent Orange is without a doubt a carcinogen. This is, however, where they stop. The NIH does not state the herbicide may cause cancer, even though they say one of its ingredients does cause cancer. This reasoning does not make sense. If a part of the whole is dangerous, it follows the whole is just as dangerous as that particular part.

The specific ingredient the NIH lists as a carcinogen is 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, or TCDD. This component was not utilized in all types of defoliants the military deployed to Vietnam, how it was used in some. There was no set amount of TCDD injected into a given batch of Agent Orange. In fact, the amount of TCDD was known to vary, depending on the batch and manufacturer, according to the Board on Select Populations (the Board). In samples of Agent Orange and other defoliants gathered and tested post-war show the amount of TCDD shifting from as little as 3 parts per million (ppm) to a staggering 66 ppm.

Even more disturbing are the (mis)calculations and estimates of the volume of Agent Orange and other defoliants sprayed and dropped across Vietnam during our decade long engagement. The Board reports the original estimation was conducted by the National Resource Council. The Board’s report states the National Resource Council’s investigation suggested that between 1965 and 1971 the United States employed 18 million gallons of defoliants. This number would be revised a few times over the following decades. The latest study, this time conducted by the Institute for Medicine, showed that between 1961 and 1971 the US military used 77 million gallons of defoliants.

DOW Chemical was one of fifteen companies the United States government contracted to manufacture Agent Orange. On their website they claim, rather strongly, that “(t)he very substantial body of human evidence on Agent Orange does not establish that veterans’ illnesses are caused by Agent Orange” (bolding added). Showing an equally as stubborn streak, Monsanto, another company that was contracted to make this poison, declares their product was not harmful to veterans.

As this silent plight haunts, and pillages the lives of veterans their families, the urge to claim responsibility seems to escape the United States government. Scientific inquiries into the effects of Agent Orange, and its ingredients, have led to mixed results. As I mentioned, Monsanto and DOW Chemical hide under the results that shield them from blame and guilt. On the other hand, families like mine gravitate toward results that indicate Agent Orange, and more specifically TCDD, cause cancer and health problems. This “taking of sides” is to be expected. Both sides have vested interests in binding themselves to a set of data that supports their beliefs. However, the motivation for this marriage is differs greatly between the families and the companies. The families feel a need for justice to invade, and suffocate the evil corporations that manufactured a poison that killed their husbands, fathers and sons, while the companies simply want to make as much money as possible.

My opinion is clearly biased. However, I believe my reasoning is sound, and it is worth ending with my argument. If TCCD is known to cause cancer, and TCDD is (to some amount) an ingredient of Agent Orange, Agent Orange then contains a carcinogen, and therefore Agent Orange is capable of causing cancer.

Here is some great information about Agent Orange if you want more:

American Cancer Society on Agent Orange 

VA Facts about Herbicides

VA Public Health

Other Sources:

“Veterans and Agent Orange : Update 2012”

Board on the Health of Select Populations, Institute of Medicine, and Committee to Review the Health Effects in Vietnam Veterans of Exposure to Herbicides


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