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Environ Sci Pollut Res Int. 2004;11(6):359-70.

Environmental fate and bioavailability of Agent Orange and its associated dioxin during the Vietnam War.

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  • 1Institute for Science and Public Policy, The University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma, USA.



In 1996, the Committee on the Assessment of Wartime Exposure to Herbicides in Vietnam of the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine (IOM) issued a report on an exposure model for use in epidemiological studies of Vietnam veterans. This exposure model would consider troop locations based on military records; aerial spray mission data; estimated ground spraying activity; estimated exposure opportunity factors; military indications for herbicide use; and considerations of the composition and environmental fate of herbicides, including changes in the TCDD content of the herbicides over time, the persistence of TCDD and herbicides in the environment, and the degree of likely penetration of the herbicides into the ground. When the final report of the IOM Committee was released in October 2003, several components of the exposure model envisioned by the Committee were not addressed. These components included the environmental fate of the herbicides, including changes in the TCDD content over time, the persistence of TCDD and herbicides in the environment, and the degree of likely penetration of herbicides into the ground. This paper is intended to help investigators understand better the fate and transport of herbicides and TCDD from spray missions, particularly in performing epidemiological studies.


This paper reviews the published scientific literature related to the environmental fate of Agent Orange and the contaminant, 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD), and discusses how this affected the potential exposure to TCDD of ground troops in Vietnam. Specifically, the mechanisms of dissipation and degradation as they relate to environmental distribution and bioavailability are addressed.


The evaluation of the spray systems used to disseminate herbicides in Vietnam showed that they were capable of highly precise applications both in terms of concentrations sprayed and area treated. Research on tropical forest canopies with leaf area indices (a measure of foliage density) from 2 to 5 indicated that the amount of herbicide and associated TCDD reaching the forest floor would have been between 1 and 6% of the total aerial spray. Studies of the properties of plant surface waxes of the cuticle layer suggested that Agent Orange, including the TCDD, would have dried (i.e., be absorbed into the wax layer of the plant cuticle) upon spraying within minutes and could not be physically dislodged. Studies of Agent Orange and the associated TCDD on both leaf and soil surface have demonstrated that photolysis by sunlight would have rapidly decreased the concentration of TCDD, and this process continued in shade. Studies of 'dislodgeable foliar residues' (DFR, the fraction of a substance that is available for cutaneous uptake from the plant leaves) showed that only 8% of the DFR was present 1 hr after application. This dropped to 1% of the total 24 hrs after application. Studies with human volunteers confirmed that after 2 hrs of saturated contact with bare skin, only 0.15-0.46% of 2,4,5-T, one of the phenoxy acetic acid compounds that was an active ingredient of Agent Orange, entered the body and was eliminated in the urine.


The prospect of exposure to TCDD from Agent Orange in ground troops in Vietnam seems unlikely in light of the environmental dissipation of TCDD, little bioavailability, and the properties of the herbicides and circumstances of application that occurred. Photochemical degradation of TCDD and limited bioavailability of any residual TCDD present in soil or on vegetation suggest that dioxin concentrations in ground troops who served in Vietnam would have been small and indistinguishable from background levels even if they had been in recently treated areas. Laboratory and field data reported in the literature provide compelling evidence on the fate and dislodgeability of herbicide and TCDD in the environment. This evidence of the environmental fate and poor bioavailability of TCDD from Agent Orange is consistent with the observation of little or no exposure in the veterans who served in Vietnam. Appreciable accumulation of TCDD in veterans would have required repeated long-term direct skin contact of the type experienced by United States (US) Air Force RANCH HAND and US Army Chemical Corps personnel who handled or otherwise had direct contact with liquid herbicide, not from incidental exposure under field conditions where Agent Orange had been sprayed.

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