Toxic Byproducts of Agent Orange Continue to Pollute Vietnam Environment

Toxic Byproducts of Agent Orange Continue to Pollute Vietnam Environment
US aircraft sprayed 20 million gallons of herbicides across Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Dioxin, a contaminant in Agent Orange, persists today. Image: Vegetation following Agent Orange application in Vietnam. Photo by U.S. Army Flight Operations Specialist 4 John Crivello in 1969.

During the Vietnam War, United States aircraft sprayed more than 20 million gallons of herbicides, including dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange, on the country’s rain forests, wetlands, and croplands. Agent Orange defoliated the thick jungle vegetation concealing Viet Cong fighters and destroyed a portion of the country’s food crops, but it was primarily the dioxin contaminant that harmed so many Vietnamese and U.S. military personnel. A new article from the University of Illinois and Iowa State University documents the environmental legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam, including hotspots where dioxin continues to enter the food supply.

“Existing Agent Orange and dioxin research is primarily medical in nature, focusing on the details of human exposure primarily through skin contact and long-term health effects on U.S. soldiers,” says Ken Olson, professor emeritus in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at U of I University of Illinois and co-author on the article. “In this paper, we examine the short and long-term environmental effects on the Vietnamese natural resource base and how persistence of dioxin continues to affect soils, water, sediment, fish, aquatic species, the food supply, and Vietnamese health.”

Olson and co-author Lois Wright Morton of Iowa State University explain that Agent Orange was a combination of two herbicides, 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, neither of which persist longer than a few days or weeks in the environment when exposed to sunlight. However, during production of Agent Orange, a toxic byproduct formed: dioxin TCDD, the most toxic of the dioxin family of chemicals. Once dioxin TCDD gets into the environment, Olson and Wright Morton say, it can stick around for decades or even centuries. That’s what happened in the Vietnam landscape.

The researchers examined an 870-page USAID report, as well as a dozen other research reports on Vietnam’s contaminated airbase sites, to explain dioxin TCDD’s movement and long-term fate throughout the Vietnam countryside.

“The pathway begins with the U.S. military spraying in the 1960s, absorption by tree and shrub leaves, leaf drop to the soil surface (along with some direct contact of the spray with the soil), then attachment of the dioxin TCDD to soil organic matter and clay particles of the soil,” Wright Morton says.

From there, dioxin TCDD moved offsite in surface runoff, clinging to sediment particles and settling in wetlands, marshes, rivers, lakes, and ponds. Dioxin TCDD-contaminated sediment was – and still is – ingested by bottom-feeding fish and shrimp, accumulating in fatty tissue of those animals and up the food chain into many of the fish that form the basis of the Vietnamese diet. Even though fishing is now banned from most contaminated sites, bans have been difficult to enforce and, as a result, dioxin TCDD is still entering the human food supply 50 years later.

The article maps the 10 airbase sites where dioxin TCDD levels remain at dangerous levels, noting that millions of Vietnamese live in adjacent cities and villages.

“The worst dioxin-contaminated site in Vietnam is Bien Hoa airbase, which is 30 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City,” Olson says. “After President Nixon ordered the U.S. military to stop spraying Agent Orange in 1970, this is the site where all the Agent Orange barrels remaining in Vietnam were collected. The barrels were processed and shipped to Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean, where they were incinerated at sea in 1977.”

Based on their research, Olson and Wright Morton recommend incineration of contaminated soils and sediments at the Vietnam airbase hotspots.

“While incineration is the most expensive technology currently available, it would eliminate dioxin rather than temporarily store it in a landfill, and incineration would not require future maintenance or treatment. Incineration is one of the most commonly used technologies, having been used to treat soils at more than 150 superfund sites, and is a mature and tested technology,” the authors say.

1 Comment
  1. Thank you for sharing this article with the public. I would be interested to know about Agent Orange because my husband was one of the many US Army soldiers sprayed with Agent Orange. He now has health problems that I believe Agent Orange has been a cause of issues associated with the dousing of the chemicals. If the areas of Vietnam that were saturated are still being affected 50 years later, there has to be some very ill effects on the human body 50 years later as well. What kind of government studies have been done on the veteran’s that has been made public? If so, I would like to have the internet addresses, so I could read about the studies. There are several Vietnam Veteran’s who now have COPD issues to date, and they were all sprayed and doused numerous times with Agent Orange. It seems to me there may be a correlation between the two, but the US Government and the Veteran’s Administration seems to think otherwise. Thank you for reading this email, and I look forward to hearing from you.

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