Agent OrangeUpdated: February 9, 2024
Update February, 2024: The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) proposed a rule change to expand the locations and time frames of presumed exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides. The proposal would include areas in the U.S., Canada and India where the chemical was stored and tested. The current policy on Agent Orange exposure only encompasses Vietnam, Cambodia, Johnson Atoll, Guam, American Samoa, Korea, Laos, and Thailand.
The Department of Veterans Affairs website includes an Agent Orange page, designed to help veterans, civilians and families of those exposed to Agent Orange.
Agent Orange was an herbicide used tactically during the Vietnam War to destroy Viet Cong and North Vietnamese food crops and forest cover, according to “Operation Ranch Hand: The Air Force and Herbicides in Southeast Asia 1961-1971,” an Office of Air Force History publication.
A United States military operation codenamed Operation Ranch Hand was responsible for deploying 18 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos from 1961 to 1971, according to the Office of Air Force History publication.
Dr. James Clary, the scientist who prepared the final report on Operation Ranch Hand, said in a 1988 letter to a U.S. Senator that military scientists “were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide,” according to an Agent Orange investigative report prepared for the VA.
Clary went on to state that, “because the material was to be used on the ‘enemy,’ none of us were overly concerned. We never considered a scenario in which our personnel would become contaminated with the herbicide.”
In 2011, the BBC and other news sources reported that “Vietnamese experts say more than three million people have suffered the effects of the herbicide, of which some 400,000 died.”
Where Agent Orange Was Used
What follows isn’t meant as a comprehensive description of all tactical deployments of the toxic compound known as Agent Orange According to the VA website, service members who served in the following locations have a presumption of exposure:
- Vietnam: Those who served in Vietnam, on land or on a military vessel operating in inland waterways of Vietnam or the waters between Vietnam and Cambodia between Jan. 9, 1962, and May 7, 1975
- Herbicide tests, storage or transportation: Those who were involved in Agent Orange testing, storage or transportation.
- Korean Demilitarized Zone: Those who served along the demilitarized zone in Korea between Sept. 1, 1967, and Aug. 31, 1971
- Thailand military bases: Those who served at a U.S. military base in Thailand or a Royal Thai Air Force base between Jan. 9, 1962, and May 7, 1975
- C-123 aircraft and Agent Orange residue: Those with repeated contact with C-123 aircraft with traces of Agent Orange
- Specific U.S. Reserve locations: Those who served in specific locations, units and times, including 758th Airlift Squadron at Pittsburgh International Airports between 1972 and 1982
See the VA website for a more complete list of dates and locations of possible exposures.
Operation Ranch Hand = Chemical Warfare
During the aggressive herbicide program, Operation Ranch Hand, the U.S. military deployed multiple herbicide combinations, including Agent Orange, across an estimated 20% of the jungles in South Vietnam – nearly six million acres – according to the Office of Air Force Office History publication.
The various compounds, including Agents Purple, Pink, Blue and Green, were named after the colored stripes on the drums in which they were stored.
According to the VA website, “They were not commercial grade herbicides purchased from chemical companies and sent to Vietnam.” The Department of Defense developed these for use in combat, to destroy vegetation that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops used for cover and food crops.
However, crops and water used by allies in the southern portion of Vietnam also suffered from the deployment of Agent Orange.
“Flight paths often included the spraying of surfaces of streams and rivers,” and Navy personnel sprayed riverbanks, according to the Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans and Agent Orange Exposure. The committee also determined that marine water could have also been contaminated.
Health Conditions Associated With Agent Orange
Troops in Vietnam could have been exposed to Agent Orange in several ways. They may have inhaled it when it was sprayed, especially since the herbicide spray can drift up to seven kilometers, according to the Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans and Agent Orange Exposure.
Troops could have been in contact with contaminated water, soil or vegetation. They could also have ingested the herbicide, either by drinking contaminated water or eating contaminated food. “Most human exposure to TCDD via food comes from the consumption of contaminated animal products, such as meat, fish, and dairy,” according to the IOM committee. Animals and fish consume contaminated plants and water, and then people eat the contaminated animals.
Agent Orange contains TCDD, which is the most toxic of the dioxins, according to the VA. The VA presumes that Agent Orange exposure caused certain health problems in veterans with qualifying military service. Veterans may be eligible for benefits if they suffer from the following conditions:
- AL amyloidosis
- Bladder cancer
- Chronic B-cell leukemias
- Chloracne (or similar “acneform” condition)
- Diabetes mellitus type 2
- Hodgkin’s disease
- Ischemic heart disease
- Multiple myeloma
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Parkinson’s disease
- Peripheral neuropathy (early onset)
- Porphyria cutanea tarda
- Prostate cancer
- Respiratory cancers
- Soft tissue sarcomas (other than osteosarcoma, chondrosarcoma, Kaposi’s sarcoma or mesothelioma)
The VA also recognizes that spina bifida (except spina bifida occulta) and other specific birth defects are associated with exposure to herbicides used in Vietnam.
The PACT Act
With the passage of the PACT Act in Aug. 2022, the VA now presumes high blood pressure (hypertension) and monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS) to be service-connected for Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange in certain geographical areas.
For VA purposes, Vietnam veterans include veterans who served in the Vietnam war as well as those who served in Guam or American Samoa until 1980.
Additionally, for Vietnam-era veterans, more geographic locations now qualify for presumptive conditions related to Agent Orange, including:
- Any U.S. or Royal Thai military base in Thailand from Jan. 9, 1962-June 30, 1976
- Laos from Dec.1, 1965-Sept. 30, 1969
- Cambodia at Memot or Krek, Kampong Cham Province from April 16, 1969-April 30, 1969
- Guam or American Samoa or in the territorial waters off of Guam or American Samoa from Jan. 9, 1962-July 30, 1980
- Johnston Atoll or on a ship that called at Johnston Atoll from Jan. 1, 1972-Sept. 30, 1977
What to Do If You Are Concerned
Agent Orange and the diseases associated with it is a serious concern for the veteran community. If you are concerned about possible exposure (yourself or a loved one), the VA can help.
The VA Agent Orange website page is one resource for vets. Families with eligible veterans may qualify for a free Agent Orange Registry exam to identify potential health issues associated with exposure. Dependents and survivors may also be eligible for VA benefits related to Agent Orange, depending on circumstances. Visit the VA website for more information.
Agent Orange Today
The U.S. government banned Agent Orange in 1971 and removed the remaining stockpiles of the herbicide in Vietnam, relocating them to Johnston Atoll, a remote island southwest of Hawaii. Members of the Air Force incinerated these in 1977 aboard a ship with special furnaces, according to the Office of Air Force History publication. The Air Force also destroyed the remaining stores in Gulfport, Mississippi.
Veterans Exposed to Toxic Radiation
The PACT Act also expanded health care benefits for veterans exposed to radiation. The VA now presumes radiation exposure if you participated in one of the following cleanup or response efforts:
- Cleanup of Enewetak Atoll, from Jan.1, 1977-Dec. 31, 1980
- Cleanup of the Air Force B-52 bomber carrying nuclear weapons off the coast of Palomares, Spain, from Jan. 17, 1966-March 31, 1967
- Response to the fire onboard an Air Force B-52 bomber carrying nuclear weapons near Thule Air Force Base in Greenland from Jan.21, 1968-Jan. 25, 1968
According to the VA, presumptive radiation exposure diseases can include the following with the confirmation of radiation exposure:
- Cancer of the bile ducts
- Bone cancer
- Breast cancer
- Colon cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Gall bladder
- Liver cancer
- Some leukemias
- Some lymphomas
- Multiple myeloma
The VA may also find any other cancers, tumors, cataracts and thyroid disease to be related to radiation exposure, depending on various factors, including the length of the exposure.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News