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Herbicides have ravaged many veterans and their families. So, where and how did the Agent Orange nightmare begin for Vietnam veterans and their offspring?  

First, one needs to know what we mean by “Agent Orange.” That term has become a catch phrase that refers to several mixtures of herbicides that were used in Vietnam. To identify the different agents, manufacturers painted a color band on their storage drums. The herbicide agents were Orange, White, Blue, Purple, Green, and Pink. These same herbicides in their military formulations were stored, tested, and used in many locations outside of Vietnam. Agent Orange, the most-used herbicide agent, consisted of two herbicides, 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T). These two chemicals were also used in the formulation of some of the other agents.  

In the 1930s agricultural research identified plant hormones that regulate the growth of plants.  By 1939, fifty-four substances were identified. By far the most powerful was the chemical 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid—better known by the abbreviated name 2,4-D. It later became an equal partner with 2,4,5-T in the formulation of the Agent Orange herbicide used in Vietnam. While Agent Orange would not be the first herbicide formulation sprayed in Vietnam, it was the most used.

Scientists found that an overdose of the plant hormones injured and even killed plants. In the early 1940s E.J. Kraus first suggested that these plant hormones could be used as weed killers. Kraus believed his research into these plant hormones would interest the War Bureau of Consultants. The WBC was formed under the National Academy of Sciences as a result of an October 1941 directive from President Franklin Roosevelt to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. The committee’s job was to assess the state of the art of biological warfare.  

Kraus suggested using 2,4-D in chemical warfare. There is some conflicting information on when Kraus made his recommendation. Robert Allen and C.D. Stelzer, in their article, “Dioxin and the Courts,” wrote: “By 1943, Kraus was confident enough about the properties of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T to recommend them to a U.S. National Academy of Sciences committee on biological warfare.” But the WBC disbanded before 1943.

The WBC reported its findings in a February 1942 report, recommending the formation of a civilian agency to research defensive and offensive biological warfare. As a result, the War Research Service was formed in 1942 with George F. Merck as director. The WBC then disbanded.  

Merck sent a report, dated January 3, 1945, to the Secretary of War. The report noted: “The major achievement of the War Research Service, however, was the organization of a program of research and development to extend the boundaries of knowledge concerning the use of pathogenic agents as a weapon of war.”

It also points out that “In November 1942 War Research Service requested the Chemical Warfare Service of the Army to prepare to assume responsibility for a larger scale research and development program involving the construction and operation of specially designed laboratories and pilot plants. The site chosen for these facilities was at Camp Detrick, Frederick, Maryland, where construction was begun in April 1943.” This was established under the Army’s Special Projects Division of the Chemical Warfare Service. E.J. Kraus became the head of the herbicide program at Camp Detrick.

Soon after the establishment of the facilities at Camp Detrick in 1943, the Army set up field-testing facilities in Mississippi, a plant for larger scale production in Indiana, and a field-testing site in Utah. Merck’s report boasted “information on the effects of more than one thousand different chemicals on plants.” It was one of the more important accomplishments of the programs. For those interested in more research, a good place to start is the website, 

More than herbicides were researched at Camp Detrick. There also was research and development of biological and chemical agents that affect humans and animals. Not everything that came out of these programs was bad. The programs provided vital information on how to protect the military and civilian populations from poisonous agents and made advancements in the treatment of diseases.    

While synthetic forms of herbicides, including 2,4-D, were developed during World War II and there were plans for their use, the war ended without the military using them against the enemy. After the war, these herbicides were used heavily in agriculture to control weeds and thereby increase crop yield.  

Eric Croddy, in his book, Weapons of Mass Destruction, reports that the U.S. military also planned to use a combination of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T in the Korean War (1950-53). Again, the war ended without the use of the herbicides.  

Croddy wrote that the herbicides were reported as destroyed in 1955. Alvin Young’s December 2006 DOD report, The History of the U.S. Department of Defense Programs for the Testing, Evaluation, and Storage of Tactical Herbicides, also documents the plans for the deployment of herbicides during the Korean War. “Although not used in World War II, the concept of vegetation control was not forgotten,” he writes. “In 1952, the Department of Army’s Chemical Corps Biological Laboratories at Camp Detrick, Maryland, initiated a major program to develop both aerial spray equipment and herbicide formulations for potential deployment in the Korean Conflict.”

Again, although not used in Korea, the equipment and the formulated chemicals were stored on Guam until 1954, after which the equipment was sent to Utah and the drums of herbicide were sent to Camp Detrick. Camp Detrick (now Fort Detrick) continued working on developing deployment systems and herbicidal materials through the 1950s.

The Pleasures Of Showering In Long Binh | What Can Science Offer The Children Of Agent Orange? | Benefits Q&A: Agent Orange In Okinawa | The Legacy Of Agent Orange | The Toxic Risk At Home | Civilians In Vietnam | Searching For Legislative Remedies

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