Agent Orange is a defoliant, that is, a chemical that kills plants and causes the leaves to fall off the dying plants. The name was a code devised by the United States military during the development of the chemical mixture. The name arose from the orange band that marked the containers storing the defoliant.
Agent Orange was an equal mixture of two chemicals; 2, 4–D (2,4, dichlorophenoxyl acetic acid) and 2, 4, 5–T (2, 4, 5-trichlorophenoxy acetic acid). Another compound designated TCDD (which stands for 2, 3, 7, 8-tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin) is a by-product of the manufacturing process, and remains as a contaminant of the Agent Orange mixture. It is this dioxin contaminant that has proven to be damaging to human health.
Agent Orange was devised in the 1940s. It was widely used during the 1960s during the Vietnam War. The dispersal of a massive amount of Agent Orange throughout the tropical jungles of Vietnam (an estimated 19 million gallons were dispersed) was intended to deprive the Viet Cong of jungle cover in which to hide.
By 1971, the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam had ended. Even today, however, the damage caused to the vegetation of the region by the spraying of Agent Orange is still visible. Agent Orange applications affected foliage of a diversity of tropical ecosystems of Vietnam, but the most severe damage occurred in the forested coastal areas.
Agent Orange was sprayed over 14 million acres of inland tropical forest. A single spray treatment killed about 10% of the tall trees comprising the forest canopy.
Because Agent Orange herbicide remains in the soil for some time, the contaminant TCDD is quite persistent in soil, with a half-life of three years. (In that period of time, one half of the dioxin originally applied would still be present in the soil.)
Evidence also suggests that the defoliant, and in particular the TCCD dioxin component, is a health threat to soldiers who were exposed to Agent Orange during their tour of duty in Vietnam. Tests using animals have identified TCCD as the cause of a wide variety of maladies. In the mid 1990s, the "Pointman" project was begun in New Jersey, which scientifically assessed select veterans in order to ascertain if their exposure to Agent Orange had damaged them. The project is ongoing. In the meantime, veterans organizations continue to lobby for financial compensation for the suffering they assert has been inflicted on some soldiers by Agent Orange.
█ FURTHER READING:
Gough, M. Agent Orange: The Facts. New York: Perseus Books, 1986.
National Academy of Sciences. Veterans and Agent Orange: Health Effects of Herbicides Used in Vietnam. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1994.
Schuck, P. H. H. Agent Orange on Trial: Mass Toxic Disasters in the Courts. Boston: Harvard University press, 1990.