Assessing possible exposures of ground troops to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War: the use of contemporary military records

Environ Sci Pollut Res Int. 2004;11(6):349-58. doi: 10.1007/BF02979651.


Background: Potential exposure of ground troops in Vietnam to Agent Orange and 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD) remains controversial despite the passage of 30 years since the Vietnam War. Because of uncertainty over the serum dioxin levels in ground troops at the end of their service in Vietnam, attempts have been made to develop a methodology for characterizing exposure of ground troops in Vietnam to Agent Orange and other herbicides based upon historical reconstruction from military records. Historical information is often useful in evaluating and modeling exposure, but such information should be reasonably accurate, complete, and reliable.

Methods: This paper reviews the procedures and supporting historical information related to the spraying of herbicides in Vietnam. The historical information is classified into two categories: procedural information and operational information. Procedural information covered the process and procedures followed in spraying herbicides from US Air Force fixed wing aircraft (Operation RANCH HAND) in Vietnam, and included approval procedures for spray missions, the criteria required to conduct a mission, the control exercised by the Forward Air Controller and the Tactical Air Control Center and the characteristics of the equipment used to apply the herbicides. Operational information includes data from the RANCH HAND Daily Air Activities Reports, which included geographic locations of specific spray missions, the amount of herbicide sprayed by a specific mission, reports of battle damage to spray aircraft, reports of fighter aircraft support for aerial spray missions, and any comments, such as reasons for canceling a mission.

Results: Historical information demonstrates that herbicide spray missions were carefully planned and that spraying only occurred when friendly forces were not located in the target area. RANCH HAND spray missions were either not approved or cancelled if approved when there were friendly forces in the area designated for spraying. Stringent criteria had to be met before spray missions could be approved. The operational information shows that spray missions for both defoliation and crop destruction were conducted in an extremely hostile environment. Heavy 'fighter suppression' with antipersonnel ordnance was used to minimize the impact of hostile ground fire on RANCH HAND aircraft. Procedures were in place that prohibited movement of troops into sprayed areas immediately after a mission due to the possible presence of unexploded ordnance delivered by fighter aircraft supporting RANCH HAND missions. The optimal nature of the spray equipment and application procedures minimized the possibility of significant spray drift. Conclusions. Few friendly troops were sprayed by fixed wing aircraft during Operation RANCH HAND, which delivered 95% of all defoliants used in Vietnam. Similarly, few troops were sprayed during helicopter or surface-based spray operations, which constituted the remaining 5% of defoliants. Detailed policies and procedures for approval and execution of spray missions ensured that friendly forces were not located in the areas targeted for spraying. Fighter aircraft assigned to accompany each spray mission frequently suppressed much of the hostile fire with bombs and other ordnance. Confirmed clearance of the target area was necessary to avoid friendly casualties. Historical records establish that these policies and procedures were strictly followed. Exposure of troops whether from direct spraying or movement through areas recently sprayed was very unlikely. The wartime military records of troop positions and herbicide operations are valuable for some purposes, but have specific limitations in exposure reconstruction. The completeness and accuracy of the geographic data (maps used by RANCH HAND and military ground units) were dependent upon the inherent precision of the map, the accuracy with which it depicted surface features, and the completeness and accuracy of the information on which it is based. Navigation by the crew using visual orientation and reference to the map was the only means that aircrew on spray missions had for establishing their locations. A Forward Air Controller independent of Operation RANCH HAND was present at the location of each spray target immediately before and during spraying operations to verify the target location and ensure that friendly forces were clear of the target area. Anecdotal reports of direct spraying of troops in Vietnam likely reflect the RANCH HAND missions spraying insecticide for mosquito control at regular intervals from March 1967 through February 1972. Outlook. The distribution and levels of serum dioxin in RANCH HAND veterans and the US Army Chemical Corps Vietnam veterans (the unit responsible for helicopter and ground-based spray operations) are distinguishable from typical levels in the population decades after the Vietnam conflict. An exposure model similar to that proposed in the 2003 report of the Institute of Medicine's Committee on 'Characterizing Exposure of Veterans to Agent Orange and Other Herbicides Used in Vietnam' was tested in 1988 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and found to be a poor predictor of absorbed dose of TCDD. Military records during the Vietnam War lack the precision to determine that troops were directly sprayed with herbicides during Operation RANCH HAND, especially given the procedures in place to ensure clearance of friendly forces from the target area and the lack of elevated serum levels of TCDD in ground troops judged to have operated in heavily sprayed areas.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • 2,4,5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic Acid / analysis*
  • 2,4,5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic Acid / poisoning*
  • 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic Acid / analysis*
  • 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic Acid / poisoning*
  • Agent Orange
  • Aircraft
  • Carcinogens / adverse effects*
  • Carcinogens / analysis*
  • Defoliants, Chemical / analysis*
  • Defoliants, Chemical / poisoning*
  • Documentation
  • Environmental Exposure*
  • Humans
  • Military Personnel / statistics & numerical data*
  • Polychlorinated Dibenzodioxins / adverse effects*
  • Polychlorinated Dibenzodioxins / analysis*
  • Polychlorinated Dibenzodioxins / poisoning*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Vietnam Conflict


  • Carcinogens
  • Defoliants, Chemical
  • Polychlorinated Dibenzodioxins
  • 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic Acid
  • Agent Orange
  • 2,4,5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic Acid