How Agent Orange Worked

Agent Orange and Health Problems

These children from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, were born without arms, birth defects likely caused by Agent Orange.
These children from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, were born without arms, birth defects likely caused by Agent Orange.

There is a lot of controversy and debate about the actual health effects of Agent Orange. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences claimed that an "association" exists between Agent Orange and some types of cancer. Some, such as the chemical companies facing lawsuits, argue that there's no way to judge definitively whether a health problem has been caused by Agent Orange or the dioxins it contains [source: Glaberson]. But areas in Vietnam where Agent Orange was used showed and continue to show a high rate of certain diseases, birth defects and cancers.

Some Vietnamese who came into direct contact with Agent Orange quickly developed skin irritations that turned into lesions and tumors. Others attribute their cancers and multiple miscarriages to living in areas sprayed with the herbicide [source: Glaberson].The massive number of sick Vietnam veterans, especially those who handled Agent Orange, and Vietnamese civilians has all but eliminated any other possible cause. In addition, many Vietnamese have very high quantities of dioxin in their blood, up to 200 times above normal levels [source: Hitchens]. That substance's toxicity is not disputed.

Among the many complications associated with Agent Orange and dioxin are:

  • Skin irritation and skin diseases, such as chloracne
  • Neurological disorders
  • Nerve disorders, including peripheral neuropathy
  • Miscarriages in women
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Birth defects, physical deformities, spina bifida
  • Cancers: multiple myeloma, respiratory system cancers, Hodgkin's disease, prostate cancer, leukemia

In 1978, the Veterans Administration set up a program to deal with veterans exposed to Agent Orange. The VA claims to have conducted health exams on 315,000 veterans [source: Veterans Administration]. Because of the difficulties involved in testing for Agent Orange-caused illnesses, the "VA makes a presumption of Agent Orange exposure for Vietnam veterans" [source: Veterans Administration]. Some veterans who served in Korea in 1968 and 1969 also were exposed to Agent Orange, though reportedly Korean soldiers did the spraying [source: Veterans Administration]. These and other veterans who may have been exposed to toxic herbicides are eligible for health care from the VA.

The VA recognizes many of the aforementioned medical conditions as linked with Agent Orange exposure. Vets can receive health care and disability compensation for injuries or health problems related to serving in the military, including Agent Orange exposure. The VA also provides medical care for children of Vietnam veterans whose health problems appear to be caused by Agent Orange (numerous Vietnam War veterans have had children with birth defects apparently attributable to the father or mother's exposure to Agent Orange).

­On the­ next page, we'll take a look at some of the lawsuits and attempts at reparations resulting from the use of Agent Orange.