Agent Orange began in a University of Chicago laboratory during the Second World War when Dr. E.J. Kraus found by adding high doses of 2,4-tichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) causing some plants to experience rapid growth could kill certain species of plants.
The US Army further experimented with 2,4-D during the 1950s where scientists noted that a mixture of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T) sprayed on plants would immediately kill them. However they did not know that that 2,4,5-T contained a toxic substance known as dioxin that was a by-product of the manufacturing process.
There were limited further testing evaluations before Agent Orange and other chemical herbicides were shipped to Viet Nam in 1961. These were labeled by the color-coded stripes on their shipping barrels: Agent Blue, Agent White, Agent Purple, Agent Pink, Agent Green, and Agent Orange.
Spraying began in 1962 and over the next nine years over 80 million liters of herbicide were released over southern Viet Nam. Nearly two thirds of which was Agent Orange.
Reports began to emerge from Viet Nam that the Vietnamese in the areas where Agent Orange was being used were experiencing birth defects and a variety of health problems. These were dismissed as propaganda by the U.S. military.
However one of the military scientists Dr. James Clary, Air Force scientist in Viet Nam, says the Air Force knew Agent Orange was far more hazardous to the health of humans than anyone would admit at the time:
“When we [military scientists] initiated the herbicide program in the 1960s, we were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide. We were even aware that the military formulation had a higher dioxin concentration than the civilian version, due to the lower cost and speed of manufacture. However, because the material was to be used on the enemy, none of us were overly concerned.” (1988 letter from Clary to a member of Congress)
The use of Agent Orange throughout Viet Nam continued to be widespread through 1969 until a study done by Bionetics Research Laboratories exposed dioxin as the cause of deaths and stillbirths in laboratory animals.
When the Food and Drug Administration released the report, the White House, on October 29, 1969, ordered a partial curtailment of the use of Agent Orange in Viet Nam. On November 4, 1969, a message went out from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Commander in Chief Pacific and MACV:
“A report prepared for the National Institute of Health presents evidence that 2,4,5-T can cause malformation of offspring and stillbirths in mice, when given in relatively high doses. This material is present in the defoliant (Agent) Orange. Pending decision by the appropriate department on whether this herbicide can remain on the domestic market, defoliation missions in South Viet Nam using Agent Orange should be targeted only for areas remote from population.”
Despite growing regulation over Agent Orange in Viet Nam, troops continued to use it when they ran out of the other herbicides.
In early 1971, the US Surgeon General had started to regulate the use of Agent Orange for home use, given its harmful effects. Consequently, all spraying was officially stopped in Viet Nam.
However over 30 years later Agent Orange dioxin remains in the ecosystem. Studies on Agent Orange in Viet Nam (1994-2000) by Hatfield Consultants Ltd. of West Vancouver, Canada, and the 10-80 Division (Ministry of Health, Viet Nam) have shown that former US military installations are probably the most highly contaminated areas in southern Viet Nam.
Their multi-year investigation has shown that nearly 30 years after cessation of hostilities, dioxin remains at alarmingly high concentrations in soils, foods, human blood and human breast milk in adults and children inhabiting areas in close proximity to a former US military installation.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs financially compensates US veterans of the Viet Nam war, who experienced certain health problems and can show they were in contact with Agent Orange during their tours of duty in Viet Nam. However, the same health conditions experienced by Vietnamese who continue to reside in areas of high dioxin contamination are not recognized and victims receive no compensation from the US Government.