Agent Orange: All that you wanted to know

What was Agent Orange?

Agent Orange was a chemical used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.

Why was it called Agent Orange? Was it actually orange in color?

No, it was actually colorless like water. It got its name because of the drums it was stored in. It was stored in 55-gallon drums. These drums had an orange stripe around them for easy identification.

Given below is an image of the 55-gallon drums containing Agent Orange. As you see in this image, the drums have the characteristic orange stripe around them.

Leaking Agent Orange Drums in Vietnam
Leaking Agent Orange Drums in Vietnam

What type of chemical was it?

It was both—a herbicide and a defoliate. Commonly known as weed killers, herbicides are used to stop/control the growth of unwanted plants. On the other hand, defoliates are chemical substances that are used on plants to cause their leaves to fall off.

Was Agent Orange the only herbicide to have been used in Vietnam?

It was one of the Rainbow Herbicides. Rainbow Herbicides were a group of herbicides and defoliates used by the U.S. military during Operation Ranch Hand. Operations Ranch Hand was the code name given to a secret U.S. military operation that lasted from 1961 to 1971 and involved spraying of different types of herbicides and defoliates over certain areas of South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Though Agent Orange was the most potent and most widely used herbicide during the Vietnam War, it wasn’t the only one. Some of the other herbicides used were Agent Green, Agent Pink, Agent Purple, Agent Blue, and Agent White. Even Agent Orange had its own variants such as Agent Orange II, Agent Orange III, and Enhanced Agent Orange (Super Orange).

Agent Blue was used to destroy food crops. It was only in 1965 that the American public got to know about the herbicidal warfare being conducted in Vietnam by the U.S. military. In 1965 alone, over 40% of spraying was done on food crops.

Who manufactured Agent Orange?

The herbicides used in the Vietnam War, including Agent Orange, were mostly manufactured by Dow Chemical Company and Monsanto. However, there were other companies too that the U.S. military procured the herbicides from such as Hercules Inc., Diamond Alkali/Shamrock Company, United States Rubber Company, etc.

What were the active ingredients in Agent Orange?

There were two active ingredients, 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D. It was an equal mixture of these two herbicides.

Was the United States the first nation to have used Agent Orange?

The United States was not the first nation to have used Agent Orange in war. The British had used it during the Malayan Emergency in the early 1950s. The then US Secretary of State Dean Rusk had cited the British precedent when advising President Kennedy to use herbicides in Vietnam as a legal war tactic.  

The United States and Great Britain had been developing several potent herbicides with the purpose of using them in the Second World War. In fact, the United States planned on using these herbicides during Operation Downfall, which was a proposed Allied invasion of Japan. A chemical compound named LN-8 had been developed for this purpose and had gone into mass production. However, the operation never took off as Japan surrendered before any Allied invasion of Japan could occur. The ingredients used in LN-8 would later be used to create Agent Orange.

What was its impact on the environment?

Agent Orange and other Rainbow Herbicides were not of commercial grade and were specifically designed to be used in combat operations. They were designed to be much more potent than the commercial grade and this caused large-scale damage to the environment.

Agent Orange, as part of the U.S. military’s herbicidal warfare, caused large-scale environmental damage in Vietnam. Approximately around 12, 000 mi2 of forest cover was defoliated. It had a long-term impact on vegetation and made reforestation difficult. It also had an adverse impact on different animal species inhabiting the sprayed areas.

What was its impact on humans?

Agent Orange contained dioxin. Dioxins are a group of toxic chemical compounds. Dioxins can be of various types and have different levels of toxicity. The most toxic dioxin is 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, which is abbreviated as TCDD. TCDD was present in Agent Orange. It is classified as a human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

TCDD was not added purposely and is actually an unwanted byproduct of herbicide production. It can enter the human body through physical contact and can easily accumulate in the food chain. TCDD is the same toxic chemical that was released in the Seveso disaster in North Italy in 1976.

Various health-related studies have been carried out on Vietnam War U.S. veterans to ascertain the extent of damage caused to these personnel due to exposure to Agent Orange. The studies revealed an increase in the number of birth defects in the children of these personnel. A higher number of various types of cancers were also noted.  

The American soldiers were told that these herbicides were safe to handle and did not pose any health risks to them.

Which areas were sprayed the most during the Vietnam War?

Most of the spraying was done along the Ho Chi Minh trail and the forest areas along the border junctions of Cambodia, Laos, and South Vietnam.

Areas around U.S. military bases in South Vietnam were also sprayed to destroy any undergrowth around them. This gave the troops stationed at the base more visibility and did not allow the enemy to hide near the bases. This exposed a lot of U.S. military personnel to these dangerous herbicides and defoliates. Even today, the U.S. bases where Agent Orange was stored have high levels of TCDD in the soil.

How much of Rainbow Herbicides was used during the Vietnam War?

During Operation Ranch Hand, the U.S. military sprayed over 20 million gallons of Rainbow Herbicides and other defoliates. The use of various herbicides and defoliates reached its peak between 1967 and 1969.

How was such a large spraying mission carried out?

Around 95% of the spraying missions were carried out by U.S. Air Force’s Fairchild C-123 Provider low-flying aircraft. Since these were low-altitude missions and could have come under heavy enemy fire, these aircraft were often escorted by fighter jets or helicopters. The remaining 5% of the spraying was done using helicopters, hand sprayers, spray trucks, and boats.

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