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America's Love of Chemicals

  • Published: 2013-09-11 (Revised/Updated 2018-03-26) : Author: Thomas C. Weiss : Contact:
  • Synopsis: Information relating to chemicals and herbicides used in America today as well as the use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam war.

Quote: "Toxic chemicals in our environment such as lead, mercury, and certain man-made chemicals have been linked to birth defects, cancer, and brain impairments."

Main Document

Herbicides were used by the United States of America during the Vietnam War with the goal of defoliating the hiding places of Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese Army soldiers. The herbicide used was called, 'Agent Orange,' and was contained in steel drums that were color-coded with an orange stripe. Additional colors such as White, Blue, Pink, and Purple were used to designate different herbicides.

Also known as Herbicide Orange (HO) is one of the herbicides and defoliants used by the U.S. military as part of its chemical warfare program during the Vietnam War from 1961 to 1971.

Vietnam estimates 400,000 people were killed or maimed, and 500,000 children born with birth defects as a result of its use. The Red Cross of Vietnam estimates that up to 1 million people are disabled or have health problems due to Agent Orange.

The United States government has dismissed these figures as unreliable and unrealistically high.

The herbicides were also used around the perimeters of fire bases to keep concertina wire clear of vegetation with the goal of providing an open view for sentries who were on guard duty. Herbicides were also sprayed along the banks of rivers to reduce the number of U.S. Casualties in the Brown Water Navy.

Three forms of cancers and two additional health issues are linked to the chemicals used in these herbicides in the Vietnam War. The diseases are soft tissue sarcoma, Hodgkin's disease, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and the skin diseases Chloracne and Porphyria Cutanea Tarda (PCT). The years 1962 through 1971 found U.S. Forces being ordered to spray millions of gallons of herbicides over South Vietnam; Agent Orange accounted for much of the total amount of herbicides sprayed.

Where Vietnam veterans and the civilians of Vietnam are concerned, scientists have linked Agent Orange to a number of health effects. Veterans exposed to Agent Orange experience high rates of neural diseases, digestive ailments, skin diseases and cancers. Women living in sprayed regions of Vietnam have experienced high rates of premature birth, spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, molar pregnancy, severe birth defects, and uterine cancer.

Chart showing the health effects of Agent Orange
About This Image: Chart showing the health effects of Agent Orange
The end of the Vietnam War did not mean the end of the suffering in this nation. The population in Vietnam continues to be exposed to CS tear gas left behind in barrels that are now leaking into the environment. Unexploded ordnance is another major issue. By the year 1998, unexploded ordnance had killed 38,000 Vietnamese people and wounded 64,000 others. By the year 2002, approximately 180 people per month continue to be wounded or killed. In addition to chemical exposure and physical injury, people in Vietnam face serious issues related to malnutrition, infectious diseases, and other consequences of the war.

The year 2004 found three representatives of the Agent Orange Victims Association in Vietnam bringing suit in New York against the chemical companies that created Agent Orange. Three large international scientific conferences have been held in Vietnam with participants from around 20 nations in Europe and Asia. Conferences in both the humanitarian and scientific aspects of Agent Orange were held in Stockholm and at Yale University in 2002 and in 2005. U.S. Veterans, NGO's, and individuals have begun projects to support individuals, families, and communities in Vietnam.

Approximately two-third of the herbicides sprayed in Vietnam contained dioxin. Current sources give 10% as a rough figure for the total area devastated in the south, including 33% of the upland forests and 50% of the coastal mangroves. In some provinces of Vietnam, 50% of the land was stripped bare. Saigon papers of the 1960's presented stories of birth abnormalities in areas that were sprayed. American and international scientists launched investigations and called for an end to the use of chemicals.

Since the time of the Vietnam War, America has used depleted uranium in Iraq and possibly Afghanistan. America has been involved in military conflicts that have and continue to leave citizens of other nations disabled, wounded, and dead. Burn pits in Iraq have left veterans with respiratory ailments.

America is No Stranger to Chemicals

Toxic chemicals in our environment such as lead, mercury, and certain man-made chemicals have been linked to birth defects, cancer, and brain impairments. Reducing or eliminating the load of these dangerous chemicals in the products people buy, the air we breath, the water we drink and the foods we eat can help to reduce human disease and suffering. Chemical pollution health effects might appear immediately after a person is exposed, or after a period of weeks or even months after they have been exposed. The length of time it takes depends on the type of chemical or pollutant and the amount a person is exposed to. It is never safe to assume that everything is alright if you do not experience health effects immediately.

The most common chemicals handled at the majority of industrial sites are a group of chemicals generically referred to as, 'chlorinated solvents.' Chlorinated solvents are organic chemicals that do not form naturally. They consist of hydrogen, carbon, and Cl, usually from 1 to 4 chlorine atoms. There are some different chlorinated solvents in common use including:

Chart showing the health effects of chemical pollutants
About This Image: Chart showing the health effects of chemical pollutants
Chlorinated solvents are, 'volatile compounds.' What this means is they, 'volatilize,' or partially change to gaseous form and get released into the air under normal temperature and pressure conditions. In addition, they may bind to organic matter from soil particles. In water, these chemicals have enough solubility to dissolve in excess of their risk-free values. The compounds are also heavier or denser than water and tend to migrate vertically to deeper depths than other types of pollutants such as petroleum hydrocarbons and may create pools entrapped in subsurface, which act as a continuous release source. An important characteristic of chlorinated solvents is their ability to resist bio-degeneration or degradation. All of these characteristics make chlorinated solvents a real problem to the environment because they may be transported in a number of ways and persist for decades.

Air Pollutants

Air pollution is most likely one of the most serious environmental issues civilization faces today because it may affect all of us without leaving us a chance to avoid it. It is not surprising that we hear more and more about air pollution - city smog, poor air quality, and so forth. In a broad sense, air pollution means the presence of toxic chemicals or compounds in the air at levels that create health risks.

In an even broader sense, air pollution means the presence of chemicals or compounds in the air which are not usually present and which lower the air quality for breathing, or damage other conditions that support life. The compounds that are present in air, lowering its breathing quality, are usually referred to as, 'air pollutants.' The compounds may be found in the air in two major forms, gaseous form, or solid form. A large variety of contaminants may pollute the air in a large number of forms. Nearly any toxic chemical could make its way to pollute the air you breath.

Air pollutions effects vary widely from coughs or irritation of a person's respiratory tract to asthma and other chronic diseases. Skin issues and irritation might also develop due to air pollution. In addition, serious diseases such as a variety of forms of cancers, to include pulmonary and other types of cancers, might develop due to exposure to air pollutants.

Resources and Citations:

US chemical pollution threatens child health and development -

Billions of pounds of toxic chemicals are being released into the air and water of the United States, posing a major but little-studied threat to the health, development and learning ability of American children, according to a report issued last month by the National Environmental Trust, Physicians for Social Responsibility and Learning Disabilities Association of America.

Chemical Intoxication -

Chemical intoxication implies acute health problems (usually associated with digestive system) caused by exposure to high doses of chemical pollutants. Severe chemical intoxication or chemical poisoning may cause death. Such was the case in Japan in the 1970's when many people (from a locality called Minamoto) consumed fish poisoned with mercury (specifically with an organic compound of mercury called methyl mercury).

Corporate Agribusiness and America's Waterways -

Pollution from agribusiness is responsible for some of America's most intractable water quality problems - including the "dead zones" in the Chesapeake Bay, Gulf of Mexico and Lake Erie, and the pollution of countless streams and lakes with nutrients, bacteria, sediment and pesticides. The shift to massive corporate agribusiness operations is no accident. It is largely the result of decisions made in the boardrooms of some of the world's largest corporations. When it comes to agricultural pollution of America's waterways, therefore, the problem begins at the top.

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