A Continuous Legacy of Suffering
The harm of Agent Orange exposure continues to linger both in the US, through the bloodlines of those exposed during the Vietnam Conflict, and in Vietnam itself both through a ravaged landscape and the continued illnesses of the exposed population. A famous case of the generational effects of Agent Orange exposure is that of veteran Mike Ryan. He and his wife had a daughter born with spina bifida and numerous other congenital disabilities. They had no family histories of birth defects or genetic disorders, and both avoided alcohol, tobacco, and drugs and were relatively healthy during her pregnancy. Ronald Reagan met with the Ryan’s in 1980 to hear their concerns but ultimately encouraged the government to block the veterans’ class-action lawsuit and omit offspring from financial support.
Another veteran, Royal Gee, had a healthy daughter before serving in Vietnam. The daughter born after he returned from service suffered from an immune system disorder, joint issues, and chronic cysts. Many more veterans continue to come forward with stories of children and even grandchildren being born with congenital problems. Within Vietnam, many adults are living with extensive disabilities due to gestational exposure to Agent Orange. Some of these individuals have had children born with health issues as well, again indicating a lasting effect on the genetic material of those exposed.
In Vietnam, it is estimated that over 400,000 people have died due to exposure to Agent Orange. Thousands of Vietnamese children were born after the war with cleft palates, deformed limbs, and many other congenital health issues due to gestational exposure. Many US military installations, especially former air force bases, continue to be polluted with dioxins at a dangerous level that would require special decontamination procedures. Silt runoff from forests treated with Agent Orange continues to be dangerously high. Dioxin has also entered the Vietnamese food supply through bioaccumulation, rendering some dangerous foods high in dioxin levels.
In addition to human suffering, Agent Orange had a devastating effect on the ecosystems of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Millions of acres were sprayed with Agent Orange, which led to extensive deforestation. Countless mangrove forests were destroyed. The extent of the deforestation made some land impossible to reforest and restore. Studies have found drastically reduced numbers of animal species living within areas contaminated with Agent Orange. A study by Harvard biologists found only 24 bird species and five mammal species in a defoliated area, while between 145 and 170 bird species and between 30 and 55 mammal species lived in a neighboring forest that was not sprayed with Agent Orange. These findings indicate a staggering loss of biodiversity in affected forests.
Rapid, unsustainable urbanization is another lasting legacy of Agent Orange. Many fields of food crops were intentionally destroyed with Agent Orange in an effort to weaken enemy forces. This led to mass starvation and many Vietnamese citizens fleeing to cities seeking work after farms failed. As a consequence of the targeting of farmlands, the urban population of South Vietnam tripled during the conflict, with over 8 million people being urban residents by the end of 1971. Such rapid urbanization led to housing crises and the development of overcrowded slums. In Saigon alone, over 1.5 million people were estimated to be living in underdeveloped slums.
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