For those too young to remember, or who were maybe in a different part of the world at the time, about 1950 the American and British governments developed an herbicide called Agent Orange to kill brush and trees on battlefields. The product was a mixture of two commonly used plant killing compounds, 2,4,5-T (2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid), which was used to kill trees, and 2,4-D (2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid), which was used to kill tall grass and weeds. Both of these products were widely used in American agriculture at the time, and both of them produced disastrous effects on wildlife in the American environment. Even worse, a problem in the production of 2,4,5-T resulted in the production of an even more toxic chemical known as TCDD ( 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzodioxin). These chemicals were so toxic that they were banned in both the US and Britain in the early 1970's.
TCDD is so toxic it has never been used in agriculture, but there have been several well-known incidents in which accidental release caused people to get sick. In 1976, thousands of residents of Seveso, Italy were exposed to TCDD after explosion of a pressurized tank. Even though just a few kilograms of the chemical got into the air, it caused about 200 cases of chloracne, a painful disfiguration of the face. Myeloid leukemia rates went up, and an excessively large number of girl babies suggested that the chemical killed boy babies in the womb. In 1997, some laboratory workers in Vienna, Austria were exposed to 10,000 times more TCDD than all the other people exposed to the chemical in the history of its use. They were sick for several years. In 2011, the then-president of Ukraine, Viktor Yuschenko, was intentionally poisoned with TCDD and developed a serious case of chloracne.
In the Vietnam War, the US sprayed tens of millions of liters (millions of gallons) of Agent Orange over vast tracts of jungle in Vietnam to remove cover for Viet Cong troops. Dr. Jeanne Stellman of the Columbia University School of Public Health in New York City estimates that 4.5 million Vietnamese people (out of the 18 million people then living in the country) lived in the 3,181 villages sprayed with the chemical, and one million Vietnamese troops were exposed on the battlefield. Three million American soldiers, sailors,and pilots may have been exposed to the poison. The results are staggering.
The US Veterans Administration recognizes the following conditions as results of Agent Orange exposure: acute peripheral neuropathy, adult-onset (type II) diabetes, AL amyloidosis, chloracne, Hodgkin's disease, ischemic heart disease, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Parkinson's disease, peripheral neuropathy, porphyria cutanea tarda, spina bifida (in children of service members conceived shortly after their parents returned from Vietnam showed symptoms of leukemia in children), cancer of the bronchus, cancer of the larynx, cancer of the lungs, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, clear cell sarcoma, congenital fibrosarcoma (in children of parents exposed to the chemicals in Agent Orange born shortly after the war), cancer of the prostate, cancer of the trachea, epithelioid malignant Schwannoma, giant cell tumor, hairy cell leukemia, multiple myeloma, and over 10 more. There are also 18 kinds of birth defects recognized in children born to American servicewomen after their return from Vietnam.
TCDD can damage DNA. It also changes the way the mitochondria in growing cells use oxygen so that if the cell becomes cancerous, the tumor of which it is a part becomes more invasive. Many researchers explain that Agent Orange does not so much "cause" cancer as it deactivates the immune system's ability to fight it.
That's why so many government officials maintain that all of these very real Agent Orange-connected conditions are not the US Government's fault, and make it a very difficult process to get compensation from the government for service-related injuries. To make your case, if you served in the US military or were born to a Vietnam vet in the 1960's or 1970's, it can be helpful to know:
- Vietnam was not the only place the US military used the chemicals in Agent Orange. When the product was known as Agent Purple, it was tested at Fort Drum, New York, after 1959.
- The VA determines whether or not service members could have been exposed to Agent Orange on the basis of the HERBS database. There were numerous transcription errors in entering Vietnamese place names into the database. The mere fact that the VA cannot find where you would have been exposed to Agent Orange does not mean that you weren't.
- Agent Orange was sprayed from C-123 aircraft registered to the South Vietnam, not the United States. Usually these planes had American pilots dressed in civilian clothing.
- The US Army purchased at least 100,000 gallons (more precisely, 464,164 liters) of an even higher-TCDD herbicide known as Agent Green, but records of where it was used were lost.
- Exposure to the herbicide on the ground was recorded in the Hamlet Evaluation System.
- Forty-two missions involved emergency dumps of Agent Orange, without copious precautions to protect either Vietnamese civilians or American soldiers.
- There were no efforts to prevent drift of the chemicals into Laos, although pilots were under orders to avoid dropping the herbicide on Cambodia.
These facts may help you ask the right questions to get the proof of your exposure to make your claim to the VA. These records are also available to Vietnamese citizens.
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