Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

The Case of Agent Orange

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

The Case of Agent Orange

Article excerpt

The war in Vietnam saw the first full-scale use of herbicides in warfare. Inspired by tactics of the British in Malaya, the US military developed an expansive spray-system (comprising aircraft, handsprayers, trucks, helicopters, and boats) aimed at the defoliation of mangroves and forests, and destruction of crops and their distribution so as to remove aerial cover and food supplies to the North Vietnamese and allied forces (Stellman et al. 2003). While its effectiveness as a weapon of warfare has been questioned, its effects have been far reaching. (1) Approximately two-thirds of the herbicides sprayed contained a highly toxic, irremovable chemical known commonly as dioxin, (2) which is able to concentrate in the body of animals and humans (Stellman et al. 2003; Schecter et al. 2001). Recognized as among the most toxic substances ever produced, archives recently released from the US Department of Defense inform the extent of exposure and concentration of dioxin to be far greater than previously thought (Stellman et al. 2003). It is now contended that an additional seven million litres of herbicides were sprayed, in particular with heavy dioxin concentration: more than doubling the total dioxin deposited to 366 kilograms or the world's largest dioxin contamination. Agent Orange, the main herbicide used and primarily for defoliation, it is now thought to have contained closer to 13 parts per million dioxin than an earlier estimate of 3 parts per million. Due to recording error and lost inventory, as well as questions as to what extent did vaporization occur in the atmosphere or after the spray had landed on vegetation, and the extent to which spraying continued after the Americans left, the exact amount of dioxin deposited can never be determined. Over a ten-year period 1961-71 it is estimated that 15 to 16 per cent of land cover of the former South Vietnam, and at least 2.1 million and as many as 4.8 million people were directly sprayed (Stellman et al. 2003). (3) Missions, discontinued officially in 1971, it is alleged continued by allied South Vietnamese forces until the end of the war in 1975 (Johnstone 1971; In Re: "Agent Orange" Product Liability Litigation 2005). (4) Select areas of Laos and less directly, Cambodia, that flanked the major supply and reinforcement route known as the "Ho Chi Mirth Trail" were also targeted. Extraneous in the whole, the extent of territory exposed and the number of flight missions remains contested (Stellman et al. 2003).

Described by villagers as a white mist that fell from the sky, herbicides containing harmful dioxin compound thus settled into the soil and waterways of the former French dominion Indochina, making way into animal or human tissue either by direct contact through the skin or lungs or by eating sprayed foodstuff (CGFED 2003, p. 28; Ngo Thi Kim Cuc 2003-2004). Being fat- and oil-soluble, dioxin bioaccumulates as it moves up the food chain (FDA-CFSAN 2003). A fish, for example, will have higher concentration than the plants and animals they eat; so too humans that eat the fish. Fish, a known conduit of dioxin and animal staple of the Vietnamese diet, is suspected as the main contributor of dioxin (Schecter et al. 2001, p. 442). The chain is propagated finally as it is transmitted through conception and or the breast milk of nursing mothers (Schecter et al. 2001; Dwernychuk et al. 2002).

A slow mobilizer over time, it was, perhaps, the disproportionately high number of "child monsters" born in dioxin-exposed regions that first raised alarm. Early reports sent chills of rising numbers of infant mortality, congenital malformation, miscarriage, and premature birth among exposed persons (10-80 Organizing Committee, 1993). While the science of dioxin is not completely understood, it is known to alter cell growth, hormones, and growth factors with more severe and consistent effects coming in the early stages of development (EPA 2001, 2001a; NAS-IOM 2004). At very low concentrations, dioxin has been shown to have very serious effect on the reproductive system (Le Cao Dai et al. …

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