America’s Secret Chemical Weapon: Agent Orange, a Dioxin
Author: Sabrina Doherty
Agent Orange is classified as a toxic organic substance and is part of a larger family of dioxin-like compounds. The US Department of Public Health reports that Agent Orange is comprised of 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T), and 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, more commonly known as TCDD.3
Dioxins or CCD (chlorinated dibenzo-p-Dioxins) describe a family of organic compounds that are chemically similar; including PCB’s and TCDD’s. TCDD, the dioxin present in Agent Orange, is considered the most toxic of dioxin compounds. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registration reports that TCDD exposure in animals causes weakened immune systems, reproductive and birth defects, weight loss, liver damage, and hormonal abnormalities.
Both the World Health Organization and the Department of Health and Human Services concur: TCDD is a cancer agent.Cancer agents are compounds that have been proven to cause cancer through altering DNA or DNA expression of proteins. As this carcinogen alters the DNA of those originally exposed, it alters the heritable material (DNA) passed down to their children. Children of today’s generation are still being born with deformities from parents who were exposed to the foliage contaminated by the United States during the Vietnam war.11
Toxicity of Dioxins:
The toxicity of dioxin compounds is attributed to their structure which is extremely stable and not naturally occuring. Similar molecules such as PCP’s, or polychlorinated biphenyl, are dioxin compounds produced for industrial uses such as coolants and electrical work. PCP’s are not easily flammable and can withstand high levels of heat and combustion.
As their name suggests, dioxins are chemical structures comprised of carbon, hydrogen, and two oxygens. CCD’s are a chlorinated version of this dioxin molecule. Chlorines bond to the dioxin structure through the manufacturing processes – synthesizing CCD’s. All CCD’s are toxins and their potency increases as the degree chlorination increases. TCDD, or tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, is simply a CCD that has four chlorine molecules attached. TCDD was initially produced as a byproduct of manufacturing herbicides and pulp bleaching for producing paper.5 TCCD is most commonly known as a byproduct of the synthesis of the herbicide Agent Orange.
Dioxin compounds are extremely hazardous because of their unyielding stability. This stability is also what makes these compounds so useful in industry. Their stable structure prevents them from being broken down or decomposing. Current research is developing techniques capable of reducing toxicity in dioxin like compounds with low degrees of chlorination, however the more toxic compounds such as TCDD retain their toxicity and currently remain unable to be broken down.
In spite of their cessation of production in 1979, TCDD and their CCD relatives continue to circulate within the environment. Agent Orange was developed as an herbicide – to kill the leaves of plants and trees.7 An unfortunate side effect is that their power of destruction and deformity is not limited to leaves. Dioxins easily permeate skin: the largest protective organ in humans and animals. TCDD presence contaminates water and soil – plants uptake the contaminated water, animals eat the contaminated plants, and humans are subsequently and continually exposed if it is present in the environment. The CDC reports that animal exposure results in a variety of symptoms including altered reproductive function, abnormal liver enzyme levels, tumor development, and premature death.8
Dioxin like compounds accumulate within the fatty tissue of animals and humans – their bodies are not equipped to detoxify it.6 Dioxin compounds then hijack the cell’s AHR receptors and gain access into their cells nuclei.9 The AHR pathway is regulated by AHR receptors that reuptake their substrate into the nucleus. Nuclei are present in all eukaryotic cells and contain the DNA that becomes trait-characterizing protein through a process referred to as the central dogma. Protein transcription is essential for life. A simple single base replacement, deletion, or insertion into a coding region of DNA could have detrimental effects.
While the injuries and deformations an individual acquires during their lifetime are not transmitted to their children, mutated DNA – altered genetic information – potentially could be. Many genetic mutations are silent or harmless and do not affect bodily function. However, if the wrong gene undergoes a mutation, the effect can be detrimental. Classified as both a cancer agent and an extremely toxic substance, TCDD without a doubt has a detrimental effect on the health, and reproductive capabilities of those exposed and can cause mutations and deformities in their offspring and generations to follow.
The longer an individual is exposed to a carcinogen, the more likely they will be negatively affected. Agent Orange, with it’s resistance to degradation, continues to circulate within the environment it contaminated so many years ago in Vietnam. The people, plants, and animals that have developed and grown up in the presence of this cancer-causing agent and mutagen would be expected to exhibit and experience health defects. When a carcinogen that cannot be detoxified enters an organism’s body, it puts anyone exposed now or in subsequent generations at risk.
Considering that TCDD is a potent member of a broader family of dioxin-like compounds and is classified as a cancer agent, exposure to this chemical would predictably present numerous health risks, much like deformities rampant in children born today in Vietnam. Established research has shown the detrimental effects of TCDD on animals, therefore it is suggested that TCDD would also have detrimental effects on humans such as cancer, deformities, disease, and other health deficits.
Carcinogens pose a particular threat when they effect DNA and its expression into proteins. TCDD cannot be broken down – it’s presence may have the same detrimental effect on subsequent generations as it does on the initially exposed generation. Longer exposure to a harmful chemical yields more damage, and the longer a harmful compound such as TCDD remains circulating in the environment, the longer it will continue to cause birth defects and abnormalities of the people, plants, and animals living in that environment. Although medical literature is controversial in its consensus about what causes Vietnam’s high birth defect rate compared to other countries, the International Journal of Epidemiology published a study concluding that “parental exposure to Agent Orange appears to be associated with an increased risk of birth defects.10”
Based on the toxicity/behavior of TCDD/Agent Orange and the high birth defect rate of Vietnam, it is ridiculous to not associate the chemical with its apparent consequences. At An Phuc, we believe the United States should be held accountable for indirectly terrorizing future generations from those who were alive during the war. The United States should firstly be providing compensation to military and civilian victims, and should secondarily be conducting more research in attempt to lessen the effects of the seemingly indestructible chemical as time goes on.
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- “A Tale of An Phuc House.” Ivan Tankushev. 2012. Film.