Agent Orange

Agent Orange: An Herbicide That Harmed Our Soldiers

During the Vietnam War, the United States military sprayed about 19.5 million gallons of Agent Orange and other toxic herbicides in an attempt to clear vegetation that may have hidden enemy troops. About 2.4 million U.S. soldiers served in that war. Sadly, many of these soldiers and their families face serious health problems due to their contact with Agent Orange.

This guide discusses how our soldiers became exposed to Agent Orange, the diseases caused by the herbicide, the attempts to compensate injured soldiers, and current resources for information and support.

What is Agent Orange?

Agent Orange got its name from the orange stripe painted on storage drums of the herbicide. Chemically, Agent Orange is composed of esters of 2,4–dichlorophenoxyacetic acid and 2,4,5–trichlorophenoxyacetic acid. The 2,4,5–trichlorophenoxyacetic acid, the herbicide component that contained dioxin, was produced in a way that increased the dioxin concentration and is responsible for much of Agent Orange's harmful effects.

What Diseases Does Agent Orange Cause?

Agent Orange exposure can cause cancers and other serious diseases. It has been linked to:

  • Soft–tissue sarcoma, a cancer that attacks the soft tissues of the body, such as fat, muscles, nerves, tendons, and lymph vessels.
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia or CLL, a slowly progressing cancer in which there is an abnormal increase in the number of white blood cells called lymphocytes. This is the most common type of leukemia.
  • Non–Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes and the lymph system, and Hodgkin's disease (aka Hodgkin disease), a less common cancer of the lymph system that involves specific types of tumor cells. (See What is Non–Hodgkin's Lymphoma and Hodgkin Disease on the American Cancer Society web site for further details).
  • Respiratory cancer (cancer of the lung, larynx and trachea).
  • Prostate cancer.
  • Type 2 diabetes, in which the body does not produce enough insulin or cannot react to insulin.
  • Multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells or the white blood cells that produce antibodies. The disease causes bone pain and fractures.
  • Damage to the peripheral nervous system, which transmits information from the brain and spinal cord.
  • Severe skin diseases such as chloracne and porphyria cutanea tarda. Chloracne patients have blackheads, cysts and lesions. The condition is almost always caused by exposure to dioxin or other chemicals in the group known as halogenated aromatic hydrocarbons. Porphyria cutanea tarda is a disorder involving odd pigmentation, increased hair growth and blisters on exposed skin.

Soldiers exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam can develop any of the numerous illnesses listed above. However, the health problems do not stop with that generation. Their children may be born with spinal bifida, a birth defect in which the baby's spinal cord is not properly closed. This may result in fluid on the brain (hydrocephalus) and neurological disorders.

How Were Our Soldiers Exposed to Agent Orange and Dioxin?

In an effort known as Operation Ranch Hand, Agent Orange was sprayed over 3.6 million acres of Vietnam from 1962 to 1971. Military personnel usually applied the herbicide using airplanes or helicopters. Sometimes, they used boats, trucks or even backpack sprayers.

The heaviest exposure to Agent Orange occurred among the soldiers who used backpack sprayers, those who loaded airplanes and helicopters, and members of the Army Chemical Corps., who stored and mixed herbicides. Troops were exposed if they were near the path of the Agent Orange spray at the time it was applied. Because Agent Orange is persistent, soldiers that entered a previously sprayed area may still have been exposed to the herbicide (J Expo Anal Environ Epidemiol., 2004 Jul; 14(4): 354–62).

The dioxin in Agent Orange has a half–life of one to three years in surface soil, and up to 12 years in interior soil. Construction or other activities in Vietnam may have exposed both our soldiers and Vietnamese civilians to unknown levels of the hazardous chemical.

What Efforts Were Made to Compensate Soldiers Suffering from Agent Orange Exposure?

Vietnam veterans filed a lawsuit against the makers of Agent Orange in 1978. Six years later, the parties reached a class action settlement that would set up a trust fund of $180 million to benefit the injured veterans. The settlement was approved in 1985 (In re Agent Orange Product Liability Litigation, MDL No. 381, 611 F supp 1296, 1347, EDNY 1985).

Unfortunately, the amount of the fund was not enough to compensate all Agent Orange victims. Also, many veterans were not aware of their rights to receive payment.

To make matters worse, the settlement cut–off date was 1994. Veterans that developed a disease related to Agent Orange after this date could not be compensated from the fund, even though diabetes and many cancers take several years to develop. They also would not be allowed to take their cases against Agent Orange manufacturers to court.

Two Vietnam veterans, one with non–Hodgkin's lymphoma and the other with multiple myeloma, challenged the restrictions on Agent Orange lawsuits. Both had been diagnosed with the diseases after the settlement cut–off date. Their cases eventually came before the US Supreme Court. In a divided decision, the High Court let stand a lower court ruling that allowed Agent Orange lawsuits to proceed (Dow Chemical Co. v. Stephenson, No. 02–271, June 9, 2003). When the cases returned to the Federal District Court, the defendant manufacturers claimed they were protected from liability under the Government Contractor Defense because the product they had provided met the government's specifications. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the manufacturers. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the trial court's decision. On March 2, 2009, the Supreme Court refused to hear the veterans' appeals, thus effectively ending Agent Orange litigation.

Getting Medical Help for Your Agent Orange Claim

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides medical examinations to Vietnam veterans who may have been exposed to Agent Orange (Helpline: 1–800–749–8387). The procedure includes a physical examination, basic laboratory tests, and x–rays. Although there are tests that show body dioxin levels, the VA does not perform them. The VA pays disability compensation for "service–connected" illnesses, which would include many diseases developed from Agent Orange exposure (Information: 1–800–827–1000).

Other Assistance Options for Veterans: