plane flying with agent orange spraying from behind in the shape of a skull

Agent Orange: Our Second Vietnam Battle for Life

If you are a Vietnam vet or know one, my hope is to get the message across that our battle with Agent Orange (AO) diseases, including prostate cancer (PCa), is a lifelong fight. As the AO story is lengthy, this will be in two parts with the second part addressing what we as Vietnam vets can do to increase our chances of defeating PCa.

What is Agent Orange?

I landed in Vietnam on 10/15/69 and, like my other Nam brothers, I thought I knew who the only enemy was — the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong (Charlie). Little did we suspect we were facing another “enemy” — our own government, which was spraying AO all over Vietnam (estimates are that 18-20 million gallons of herbicides were sprayed throughout our War, of which over 12 million gallons were AO1). AO exposure also applies to veterans who served in or near the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ) between April 1, 1968 and August 31, 1971.

Spraying AO in Vietnam was known as Operation Ranch Hand and it lasted from 1962 to 1971, with the peak spraying being 1967-19691,4. And because AO doesn’t just go away, all Vietnam vets through the end of the war in 1975 are considered to have been exposed to this deadly nemesis.

The unknown, dangerous dioxins

Unbeknown to most of us at the time, AO was laden with dioxins, which the World Health Organization (WHO) now defines as, “highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.”3,14 Some dioxins are considered the most carcinogenic substances known to man, with the most toxic of the dioxins technically known as 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo para dioxin, or TCDD2.

Dioxins are readily absorbed by fat tissue, where they are then stored in our bodies. Their half-life (half-life is how long it takes for half of a toxic to be eliminated in the body) in human bodies is 11–15 years, though it can be as high as 20 years3. Both are extremely long half-lives for a toxic substance.

WHO recommends no more than 70 picograms/kg (that’s trillionths of a gram) of body weight or 5.25 parts per billion per person per year of TDCC for a 160 pound person13. Based on the estimates of TDCC in all the AO sprayed (366 kg11), that was much as we 2.7 million vets should be exposed to in 70 years. Which means each of us most likely got way more than we should have gotten in a lifetime in just 13 months. And with those long half-lives, it’s likely most of us still have toxic levels of TDCC in our bodies.

Downplaying Agent Orange

The VA, as usual, downplaying things done improperly to vets in time of war, notes “the dioxin TCDD was an unwanted byproduct of herbicide production." For reference, dioxins are pollutants released into the environment as a result of burning waste, diesel exhaust, chemical manufacturing or other processes. TCDD is considered the most toxic of the dioxins and is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a human carcinogen.1

Interestingly they omitted "spraying" as a cause of it being released into the environment, which I assume is included under “other processes”. Of course, spraying is the way to get HUGE quantities released into the environment rapidly. In Vietnam it surely caused far more dioxins being released “into the environment” (and our bodies) than all the other sources combined.

Today's remnants of war

Today it is estimated that today 28 of the previous U.S. military bases in Vietnam where the herbicides were kept may still have high levels of dioxins in the soil. This present-day exposure poses a health threat to those neighboring communities. Extensive testing for contamination has been conducted at the former bases in Danang, Phù Cát District and Biên Hòa. Some of the soil shows extremely high levels of dioxin and requires environmental remediation--for example, Da Nang Air Base still has dioxin levels up to 350 times higher than international recommendations.

Despite these high amounts of dioxins still in these areas, the VA claims, “Agent Orange dries quickly after spraying and breaks down within hours to days when exposed to sunlight (if not bound chemically to a biological surface such as soil, leaves, and grass) and is no longer harmful.”1 While AO does break down fairly quickly when it dries on plants, dioxins are extremely robust compounds and break down slowly in the soil. In fact, a large portion of the current dioxins exposures in the U.S. is connected to releases that happened decades ago.2,3

Another source notes that dioxins buried under the surface or deep in the sediment of water bodies can have a half-life of more than 100 years.3 Not only can dioxins remain for years in soil or water sources, researchers have found concentrated amounts of the dangerous compound in food and wildlife in Vietnam as well as in the Vietnamese people living in the contaminated areas.6

Personally, I think American Vietnam vets should be added to this list.

Learn more about Agent Orange and its impact on veterans in Agent Orange: Our Second Vietnam Battle for Life Part II.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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