Dioxin, the toxic compound chemically known as 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, or TCDD, is the most studied member of the dioxin category of chemical substances. Dioxin became publicly known after the Vietnam War due to its presence in Agent Orange, an herbicide used to defoliate the jungles of Southeast Asia. Use of Agent Orange was banned in the U.S. in 1970.
Exposure to dioxin comes from breathing particles that enter the air or from eating foods contaminated with the compound. During the Vietnam War, soldiers were exposed to dioxin in the air, water and food; more than 90 percent of all dioxin exposure comes through diet. It has been reported that the equivalent of 600 kg of dioxin was spilled on Vietnam during the decade between 1961 and 1971. This number is four times greater than the original amount reported by the U.S. after the war.
For decades, it has been known that dioxin was dangerous to the body, but it has not been until recent years that environmental and government groups have acknowledged the compound as a known carcinogen. Aside from causing cancer, dioxin has been linked to numerous other health problems, including diabetes, birth defects, learning disabilities, skin rashes, liver and reproductive system disorders and immune system abnormalities. The risk of these side effects is high in the population of Vietnam War veterans who were exposed to dioxin overseas, as well as populations of Vietnamese citizens who continue to be exposed through their ecosystem.
Studies of Vietnam veterans exposed to dioxin show that their children have a higher risk of being born with spina bifida, a birth defect that occurs when the neural tube fails to close during gestation. This often leads to mental retardation, paralysis, bowel and bladder problems. The research linking dioxin in Vietnam to the incidence of spina bifida in veterans'' children is so strong that the U.S. government compensates veterans whose children are born with the birth defect. There is still a high rate of birth defects among children born in Vietnam today.
Dioxin exposure in Vietnam also appears to increase risk of diabetes. Air Force troops whose responsibility it was to spray Agent Orange in Vietnam have been found to have higher dioxin levels than those not exposed to the Agent Orange. The troops with the higher dioxin levels were found to have a higher risk of diabetes than those with exposure levels similar to those of average Americans.