Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Lasting effects of Agent Orange

Ceres Alhelí Otero Peniche
Mexico City, Mexico

Photo by Célia Espanya on Pexels

Agent Orange was an herbicide used by the United States military from 1962 to 1971 in the Vietnam War. To prevent Vietnamese soldiers from being able to hide among the trees, Agent Orange was used to clear forests in the regions of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. It was also used to destroy farmland to prevent the Vietnamese military from receiving aid in the form of food supplies. Eleven million gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed over twenty million acres of land.

Agent Orange consists of two herbicides (2,4-D and 2,4,5-T) along with traces of the dioxin TCDD, a chemical found in heavy metals and responsible for causing liver and hormonal damage. Agent Orange got its name because of the barrels used to transport it, and was considered a “rainbow herbicide” along with other herbicides used at the time, such as Agent Pink and Agent Purple. Millions of Vietnamese people were exposed to Agent Orange, which caused widespread disability, death, and congenital defects in the population. More than 300,000 US veterans are also known to have died from exposure to the chemical.

Loss of appetite, fatigue, loss of voice, fever, soreness, wheezing, coughing, chest pain, and pneumonia are among the early symptoms of Agent Orange exposure. Long-term effects include multiple forms of cancer, neurological diseases, thyroid problems, Type II diabetes, liver disease, and heart failure. Both American and Vietnamese soldiers and inhabitants who had contact with this chemical also experienced congenital deformities in their offspring, including spina bifida, cleft palate, acute myeloid leukemia, adrenal gland cancer, blindness, and others.

War often leaves wounds in its aftermath. In the case of the Vietnam War and the use of Agent Orange, many of those scars are still visible today.


  1. “Agent Orange Effects.” Cleveland Clinic. Accessed June 24, 2024. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/24689-agent-orange-effects
  2. Buckingham, WA. “Operation Ranch Hand: herbicides in Southeast Asia”. Air University review (United States edition) 1983;34(5). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12879499/
  3. Monte, Suzanne de la, and Anuva Goel. “Agent Orange Reviewed: Potential Role in Peripheral Neuropathy and Neurodegeneration”. Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health 2022;30(2):17.
  4. Monte, Suzanne de la, Anuva Goel, Ming Tong, and Busra Delikkaya. “Agent Orange causes metabolic dysfunction and molecular pathology reminiscent of Alzheimer’s disease”. Journal of Alzheimer’s disease reports 2023;7(1):751-66. https://doi.org/10.3233/adr-230046.

CERES ALHELÍ OTERO PENICHE is a third-year medical school student at Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico City. She is interested in studying nephrology, internal medicine, or microbiology for her academic focus. In her spare time, she enjoys writing, reading, painting, and visiting museums.

Spring 2024



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