What is Agent Orange?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Agent Orange is an herbicide that was used by the United States in Vietnam, Cambodia, and parts of Korea. In addition to being a highly effective at killing plants, it has turned out to have a number of alarming health effects that have made it into a very controversial subject. Its major manufacturers, including Dow Chemical and Monsanto, have contended with lawsuits and considerable public outrage as a result of their roles in the production of this chemical.

Agent Orange has been linked with birth defects.
Agent Orange has been linked with birth defects.

This herbicide is named for the large orange drums it was shipped in. It is among a family of so-called “rainbow herbicides,” all named for their colorful shipping containers, which were used to quickly identify various herbicides so that they could be easily inventoried and utilized. During the Vietnam War, Agent Orange was turned into an aerosol form and sprayed from aircraft.

It may seem a bit odd to be using an herbicide as a military weapon, but one of the reasons the United States encountered difficulties in Vietnam was the thick and abundant jungle, which sheltered enemy forces along with their camps. The goal of using Agent Orange was to deprive the enemy of shelter, forcing them out into the open and theoretically making it easier to fight them. About 40 million pounds (roughly 18 million kilograms) was dropped on Vietnam alone between 1965-1970.

This herbicide contains dioxins, chemicals now known to be extremely harmful. Agent Orange has been directly linked with cancer, birth defects, liver failure, chloracne, diabetes, and a number of other serious health problems. Many of these conditions first emerged in Vietnamese and Cambodian civilians, who did not understand the cause of the problem. While some might have suspected the role of the chemical in their illness, it took extensive research to uncover the truth, and it wasn't until 2004 that victims were compensated in a class action lawsuit, by which time many were dead.

It also caused problems for returning veterans, many of whom struggled with “Agent Orange Syndrome” in themselves and their families, thanks to the residue they brought home on personal possessions. Veterans fought to have the condition recognized so that they could obtain treatment, and in 1984, an out of court settlement compensated veterans. Most still have not received the health care benefits they feel they are entitled to as a result of Agent Orange exposure.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


What this author ignored was the history of why the U.S. used it in the first place. The U.S. was not the only nation to carry out this type of stuff in warfare; other nations did, too.

The British experimented with Agent Orange for its use to clear out ambushes in the jungles during the Malayan Emergency, starting in 1951 and continued on until the conflict's end in 1960. So the U.S. saw what the British did and decided that weed-killers were not a violation of the international law. It's not like the U.S. did it just for the hell of it.


The USA is paying the Vietnamese millions upon millions for the effects of Agent Orange. What about all the veterans and their families?


Chemical warfare on civilian populations is possibly the most terrible form of combat. This goes to show how the pandemic of war affects everyone everywhere, and is not confined to certain groups of people or the battlefield. Today, the entire world exists under the threat of outright war and destruction.


The effects of agent orange are horrific and savage. Countless Vietnamese children were born with a wide range of deformities, and soldiers and civilians infected with Agent Orange have been permanently physically altered. There is no measure for the long-term psychological and physical harm it has caused to countless people, who must go on living in heartbreaking physical conditions while loved ones look on.

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