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The Social Health and Economic Costs of Agent Orange in Vietnam Term Paper

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Updated: Jan 14th, 2020

War has apparent disruptive implications on not only people’s lives but also the economy and the environment. War disturbs settlements arrangements, destroys infrastructure, disrupts the education system, destroys the social fabric, jeopardizes civil freedoms, destroys the environment, causes food scarcity, and compromises on the health and wellbeing of the population.

These effects often have long-term effects depending on the severity of the war, impacting later social and economic development. On the other hand, neoclassical models argue that war is often followed by rapid ‘catch-up’ growth that causes the economy to attain steady growth, and avoiding long term post-war implications on the nation (Dreze, 2000).

In this regard, Dreze claims that governments often involve their military in extensive research and development as a way to boost technological advancements and compensate for war damage. In addition, the period after a war often sparks the formation of a stable state that is focuses on nation-building, which may, in turn, induce social advancement through involvement of the population (Keyssar, 2000).

The Vietnam War is claimed to be the most intense case of aerial bombing in the world’s history, which involved a drop of 6,162,000 tons of bombs, compared to 2,150,000 tons of munitions in the Second world War, 1,613,000 tons in the European theatre, 537,000 tons in the Pacific theatre, and 454,000 tons in the Korean War (Clodfelter, 1995).

Considering that the pre-war population of Southern Vietnam was about 38 million people, the bombing tonnage translates to hundreds of explosives per capita since only specific villages were targeted.

Compared to the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which had a power of about 15,000 and 20,000 tons of TNT respectively, the Indochina bombing by US translates to about 100 times the combined effect of the two atomic bombs. Based on these figures, one may be right in assuming that the war must have had serious long-run implications on Vietnam (Clodfelter, 1995).

As such, this paper seeks to investigate the long-run impact of Agent Orange in Vietnam with regard to the social health and economic costs.

To begin with, the paper shall examine the health effects on the current population that survived the bombing caused by release of Agent Orange byproducts, TCDD, followed by an assessment of the economic implications on a personal and national level, looking at factors such as population density, poverty and consumption expenditure.

State of Vietnam in the 1960s

It is important to not note that in the 1960s and 70s, Vietnam was predominantly a rural country that was significantly poorer than either Germany or Japan. Considering that the urban settlements and infrastructure at that time were scarcely used and possibly underdeveloped, it is possible that any droppings of Agent Orange in such settings did not have much impact on the postwar recover of Vietnam compared to other regions.

Assessment of Immigration Patterns

In accessing the social health implications of the Vietnam population following the release of Agent Orange, it is important to identify the variety of victims, since solutions to the episode have been tailored by the government and different aid agencies to meet specific groups of Vietnamese people.

The victims can be classified into four categories namely: the people and soldiers who were at the sites that the herbicides were released causing them to develop related pathologies; the people who were directly hit by defoliation or affected indirectly by living with those affected; the children and grandchildren of those affected directly through genetic mutation, breastfeeding, or feeding on contaminated produce; and those who have been affected by settling in contaminated areas.

According to data provided by Stellman (2003), about 3-7 million inhabitants were directly hit by Agent Orange, which accounts for about 4,611 Vietnam villages or 18% of the then population (taking into consideration only aerial sprays, and no spraying via ships, trucks or by hand).

After the war, Vietnam has had numerous cases of mass migrations, with recent organized migrations seeking to disperse the population from the crowded River Delta region. Such trends can be assumed to involve people moving from contaminated regions to supposed safe provinces, or immigration to unknown places linked to defoliation, which has further increased exposal of the population to TCDD.

Based on immigration trends, it can be assumed that regions with the largest movement symbolize those most affected by defoliation, including the provinces of Tay Ninh, Dong Nai, and Song Be, currently Binh Phuoc and Binh Duong. These provinces are claimed to have experienced over 37% contamination, with five other provinces experiencing 17% contamination, and 4% in a few more (Stellman et al., 2003).

Stellman (2003) suggests that over 1.4 million people relocated within South Vietnam, implying that Agent Orange victims could be found in a different part of the nation, with about 800,000 immigrating to the United States, 160,000 to Canada, 160,000 to Australia, and 50,000 to France, and more to other nations.

Exposure to Agent Orange and Health Implications

Agent Orange was the name given to the chemical herbicide comprising two chemicals in equal proportions, 2,4,-D (2,4, dichlorophenoxyacetic acid) and 2,4,5-T (2,4,5 trichlorophenoxyacetic acid), which was dropped by the US military in South Vietnam (known as the Republic of Vietnam in the 60s) in the period between 1961 and 1971 with the view to deny the Vietnamese military vegetation for camouflage cover.

The chemical was termed orange due to the orange band that identified the 55-gallon drums for delivering the herbicide. This was just one of the 15 herbicides used during the Vietnam War as part of the Operation Ranch Hand.

Other herbicides used include Agent Green, Agent Orange II, Agent Blue, Agent White, Agent Purple, Agent Pink, Dalapon, Bromacil, and Tandex, among others. However, Agent Orange was the most used, and had the greatest health implications due to the contaminant, 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD) (Keyssar, 2000).

Various researches suggest that there is a decreasing level of dioxin in the environment, though there are certain ‘hot spots’ that record considerably higher levels of contamination than others. There is worry that the high levels of dioxin in these areas could be attributed to contaminated soil, plants and marine life, leading to continued contamination of the people who migrate to these areas.

The Vietnamese government is particularly concerned with adverse effects of TCDD on the health of its citizens and attributes various health complications to Operation Ranch Hand, including birth defects of children and grandchildren tied to parents and grandparents who were directly exposed to Agent Orange.

A study conducted by the Vietnam Red Cross (VRC) identified various diseases and deformities linked to exposure to dioxin-like tracheal cancer, bronchial carcinoma, prostate cancer, laryngeal neoplasm, and type 2 diabetes.

The concern of the Vietnamese government has been mostly directed towards deformities and disorders of newborns due to their severe nature and the massive financial burden imposed on their families, since the child must be under the constant care of at least one parent, which prevents that person from working.

Economic life of the families

The social and economic impact of the Vietnamese households affected by Agent Orange is immeasurable, considering the problems affecting the population at a personal level, both physically and psychologically, as well as effects pertaining to loss of means of production and sustenance.

Families that were dependent on farming activities were seriously affected and thrust into poverty, since some chemicals in the spray inhibited the maturation of crops. Also, the workforce was largely affected following mass migration to regions that were not affected by defoliation.

The healthy individuals were forced to take care of handicapped family members, education systems were disrupted and providing schooling to sick children became a challenge, and the overall household income reduced drastically, making it hard to not only afford proper nutrition but also cater for medical needs, which aggravated their situation (Palmer, 2005).

A survey conducted by Palmer (2005) in 1999 revealed that close to 60% of farming households were forced to live in poverty, with some residing in refugee camps. Furthermore, the income of households with affected of handicapped members is much less compares to that of undamaged families, owing to the higher cost of good health.

There are multiple bodies that have sought to address these challenges, including the US and Vietnam governments, as well as a variety of non-governmental organizations. These bodies have initiated various efforts like compensation packages for the affected families depending on the number of handicapped members in each household, and vocational training.

Macroeconomic Implications

The economy has been adversely affected at a regional and national level. For instance, there are many activities geared towards providing health services to victims around the nations, and the close to one million individuals who have been handicapped by TCDD – Agent Orange dioxin, resulting in the inability of such people to create wealth and consequently, impacting Vietnam’s GDP.

In terms of financial assistance, the government is obligated to allocate between $6 and $12 to households with at least one victim on a monthly basis, apart from any aid provided by provinces, considering that each inhabitant requires about $57 per month (Palmer, 2005).

This is a very small figure that is provided to families of civilians or ex-militants who were exposed to the herbicide, or whose children were exposed, and are currently unable to earn a living, since it only accounts for 0.5% of the public expenditure.

The effects of Agent Orange on Vietnamese produce has adversely impacted the export sector, with major importers of Vietnamese coffee claiming that it has been contaminated with dioxin, despite the fact that plants do not absorb this chemical. Other processed foodstuffs have encountered similar export challenges.

In the early 2000s, exports of farm and aquatic products accounted for about 13% of the country’s GDP, about $5 billion. Exports of farm products, including cocoa, rubber, coffee and rice have been on a decline, but for aquatic products have been on the rise owing to lower risk for water contamination compared to soil. However, there is a risk that all exports could face increased resistance from the market due to fear of contamination.

To address this challenge before it materializes, the government should embark on informational campaigns coupled with indisputable scientific tests to prove that the absence of dioxin or other contaminants, though Vietnam has faced serious budget constraints.

But in favor of Vietnam exports, a study conducted by the University of Texas on 22 food specimens from Vietnam, mostly aquatic, revealed trace dioxin elements, which refute the claim that Vietnamese food exports are strongly contaminated with dioxin or other chemicals (Schecter et al., 2003).

Vietnam has also made efforts to increase its forest cover through regeneration and reforestation programmes that seek to increase tropical forests and mangrove swamps by 1.5 million hectares.

The mangrove swamps were particularly affected by Agent Orange, destroying the ability to trap alluvial deposits carried by rivers, reducing the availability of firewood and charcoal, and providing an unfavorable ecosystem for breeding marine life (Schecter et al., 2003).

Cleanup Exercises

Cleanup efforts to curb the health effects have been underway for a long time, and the Vietnamese government hopes that the concentration of Agent Orange and other herbicides has reduced owing to decomposition by sunlight and dilution by heavy downpour and passage of time, though there are no definite studies.

However, Martin (2012) argues that Vietnam did not make aggressive efforts to decontaminate its environment prior to attaining the Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status with the United States in 2006 and becoming a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2007.

However, cleanup efforts after 2006 have increased in magnitude owing to bilateral relations and increased assistance from the US, with cost for detoxifying hot spots increasing from $10 million in 2006 to $18 million in 2008, and $34 million in 2010 (Schecter et al., 2003).

Without the assistance of other nations and agencies, the Vietnamese government lacks the financial capacity to not only undertake cleanup exercises on its own, but also attend to the health and economic needs of its affected population and nation as a whole.

The government has a big role to play in the recovery of Vietnam, including the care of Vietnam’s war veterans and removal of unexploded ordnance, which implies that it has limited resources to allocate to handling Agent Orange contamination (Martin, 2012).


The social and economic implications of Vietnam War are still apparent to date. Considering that the recovery process was significantly slow for thirty years after the drop of Agent Orange in South Vietnam, it is evident that the neoclassical model of rapid postwar recovery did not apply to Vietnam.

Nonetheless, the logic behind this model may not be applicable in Vietnam’s case since 70% of the country was rural, and the chemical attack was directed towards the vegetation. While more than 50% of the infrastructure, oil storage facilities, and major bridges were destroyed, the greatest effect was felt at the rural level, where farming activities were impeded (Drèze, 2000).

Fast recovery of the infrastructure is unlikely to have sparked investment in various regions due to the fear of diseases and deformities linked to Agent Orange. In addition, fear of contamination crippled their Agricultural Sector due to reduced farmland and less export demand, reducing the household income.

Fast recovery was further hindered by reduced labor, following the migration of more than 1 million people, and an equally large number of people who had disease or deformities requiring constant care.

Efforts by Vietnamese government and countries and agencies like the USAID and UNDP that have come to the aid of Vietnam have directed their efforts to reducing the contamination of ‘hot spots’, provision of good health and increasing market access of Vietnam produce.

In a few years, the social and economic condition of Vietnamese residents may change for the better with continued support, though fears of contaminated exports may continue until definitive tests are performed.


Clodfelter, M. (1995). Vietnam in Military Statistics: A History of the Indochina Wars, 1772-1991. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Drèze, J. (2000). Militarism, Development and Democracy. Economic and Political Weekly , 1171-1183.

Keyssar, A. (2000). The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. New York : Basic Book.

Martin, M. F. (2012). Vietnamese Victims of Agent Orange and U.S.-Vietnam Relations. Congressional Research Service.

Palmer, M. G. (2005). The legacy of agent orange: empirical evidence from central Vietnam. Social Science and Medicine, 60.

Schecter, A., Pavuk, M., Malisch, R., & Ryan, J. (2003). Are Vietnamese food exports contaminated with dioxin from agent orange? Journal of toxicology and environmental Health, 66,1391-1404.

Stellman, J. M., Stellman, S. D., Webber, T., Tomassallo, C., Stellman, A. B., & Christian, R. (2003). A Geographic Information System for Characterizing Exposure to Agent Orange and Other Herbicides in Vietnam. Environmental Health Perspectives, 111(3), 321-328.

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