Is Agent Orange Flammable?

In this article, we will respond to the following question: “Is Agent Orange Flammable?. We will also discuss its toxicity, some of its history, and other important questions about this herbicide and the Vietnam War.

Is Agent Orange Flammable?

The short answer is: overall, it’s not. Among the many dangers that agent orange has brought, for example, to the Vietnam population and soldiers during the 60s, the fire hazard is not one of them. But is not impossible for it to catch fire.

What is Agent Orange?

Agent Orange is one of the agents used during the Vietnam War. It’s a herbicide mixture used by the U.S military during the 60s to enhance jungle defoliation.

The U.S was suffering several losses because the Vietnamese had great control over the forest, being able to use the environment smartly to ambush the North American soldiers. 

To prevent this, strong herbicides started to be used as part of the war tactics.

Agent Orange was a chemical weapon composed of herbicides, which started being developed during World War II for warfare purposes.

A mixture containing the same ingredients as agent orange had begun full-scale production near 1946, to be used by the U.S against Japan, in an operation called Downfall. It wasn’t used because Japan already surrendered after the two atomic nukes.

Before the Vietnam War, Agent Orange has already been used for warfare purposes during the Anti-British National Liberation War (aka The Malayan Emergency). 

This guerrilla war was fought between the Malayan National Liberation Army and Communists pro-independence, in a region known as British Malaya. The main roots of this war had colonialist issues involved.

The Vietnam War

In 1961, the president of South Vietnam asked the U.S for help to defoliate jungle areas that were serving as a shelter for insurgents.

U.S President John F. Kennedy then approved the start use of the Operation Ranch Hand, which allowed the use of herbicides not only to prevent their enemies from using thick vegetation as cover but also to destroy crops that could feed soldiers.

Agent Orange was applied extensively in many parts of South Vietnam. More than 20% of the mangrove forest was sprayed with different agents, the so-called “rainbow herbicides”, in 9 years.

The number of victims varies depending on the source and if both civilian and military losses are counted, but total Vietnamese deaths are considered between 1 and 3 million.

The Vietnamese Government estimates that orange agent alone had infected 4 million people through the years, dealing a huge environmental impact.

Recently, the Amazon Rainforest had suffered similar threats in Brazil. Illegal applications of herbicides for the purpose of clearing the land for farming had been made.

Agent Orange-like compounds had been applied, due to their lower risk of detection by the authorities.

Agent Orange chemistry

The chemical composition of agent orange is not too complex.

The active components in the agent are a mixture of two phenoxy herbicides, that had been discovered during the 40s.

The major components were dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T). These compounds alone already present some toxicity levels, but the main carcinogenic compound was only a trace product.

Dioxin, also called TCDD, was the principal contaminant in agent orange. It was synthesized as a side product of the reaction of the other constituents.

The action mechanism of TCDD and other dioxin-like compounds is because it interacts with a certain protein of our body, called “aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AH)”.

Source: the author

These chemical compounds have the ability to bond to these proteins through chemical interaction. You can imagine that our body is a lock, while the compounds are the keys. 

Every region of the molecules above presents certain chemical properties. Each one is unique, but you can see similarities between them (eg. a ring, chlorine ligands, and oxygen inside the carbon chain).

Imagine a flat piece of magnet approaching a metal, it will start attracting and eventually bond to each other. 

A chemical molecule binding to a protein receptor can act similarly, but instead of presenting an equal magnetism through all the molecule, it presents specific magnetism all along the chain. That’s why it looks like a key.

Some receptors (locks) of our body can be misled to believe that a key fits them. In this case, all 3 keys can open the lock, but TCDD can do it better.

But sometimes we can’t choose to use the key or not. Every time it comes around our bodies simply use it unwillingly. Since the effect of this bond is malefic, the compounds are considered to be toxic.

When first studied, the components of Agent Orange were used to enhance food productivity during WWII. It turned out that some concentrations were capable of doing so, but bigger ones induced a rapid and uncontrolled growth until death.

These phenoxy herbicides are capable of mimicking a growth hormone naturally produced in plants, called indoleacetic acid.

Environmental hazards

The ecological impact that agent orange can cause is enormous. 

Direct loss of fauna and flora is very bad on their own, but dioxin can be persistent and cause indirect problems as well.

The erosion caused by the extirpation of the vegetal layer can cause long-term problems. Also, pioneer species of plants can rapidly claim the area, so reforestation can be impossible sometimes.

Dioxin (TCDD) can persist in the environment once it enters the food chain. It can then bioaccumulate in animals and fish, being continuously hazardous.

Some areas of Vietnam still have dioxin levels of toxicity a hundred times above what is accepted as an international standard.

Diseases

All the effects from agent orange are still unclear to this date.

The most acute effects of the exposure were found in the people that were most directly in contact with the substance, which are the Vietnamese farmers and soldiers, and the U.S soldiers.

Perhaps one of the worst conditions people affected by the agent was not in themselves but in their descendants.

Monstrous births had emerged in the following years after the agents started being used. These teratogenic effects still haunt Vietnam to this date.

According to the U.S Department of Veteran Affairs, U.S Military veterans that were exposed to Agent Orange during military service can receive benefits if they present diseases presented below. 

We can assume that, at least, these diseases can be caused by exposure. This list was practically quoted from the link above.

  • AL Amyloidosis
  • Bladder Cancer 
  • Chronic B-cell Leukemias
  • Chloracne (or similar acneform disease)
  • Diabetes Mellitus Type 2
  • Hodgkin’s Disease
  • Hypothyroidism 
  • Ischemic Heart Disease
  • Multiple Myeloma
  • Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
  • Parkinsonism  
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Peripheral Neuropathy, Early-Onset
  • Porphyria Cutanea Tarda
  • Prostate Cancer
  • Respiratory Cancers (includes lung cancer)
  • Soft Tissue Sarcomas (other than osteosarcoma, chondrosarcoma, Kaposi’s sarcoma, or mesothelioma)

Unlike another famous weapon used in Vietnam, the Napalm, Agent Orange can’t lead to burns and asphyxiation. 

Its effects are not immediate. Consequences from the exposure were understood and accepted only after millions of liters of the compound were used.

The total amount of Rainbow Agents used during the war is estimated at 45 million liters. The amount is abnormous, so as the high concentration used.

Agent Orange Flammability

Agent Orange is so toxic that its flammability isn’t even considered, normally. It’s not easy to find specific information regarding its flammability online.

Due to Agent Orange’s toxicity, its specific formula isn’t produced anymore. In the U.S, it’s been banned since 1971. There are also no products and no safety hazard sheets available, so its flammability can only be discussed judging by its constituents. 

As explained before, agent orange is composed of phenoxy herbicides. Equal parts of  2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D)  and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T) were used to create the compound.

But the chemical synthesis of the compounds also generated dioxin, a set of highly toxic compounds, and TCDD is the most toxic molecule.

All three basic molecules that compose Agent Orange are considered non-flammable. This doesn’t mean that the material can’t catch fire, only that fire hazard is not present due to low flammability.

A chemical solution that contains the same ingredients as the ones used in agent orange (2,4-D; 2,4,5-T and TCDD) would be considered not flammable, but it could catch fire more easily if the compounds used to craft it also contained organic solvents.

Nowadays, many herbicides analogous to Agent Orange are still used. You can check examples and their safety data sheet here and here.

Conclusion

Agent Orange is not considered flammable. It is a very toxic substance for both humans and the environment, but is not a fire hazard. The weapon used during the Vietnan War that made many burn victims was called Napalm.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQS): Is agent Orange Flammable?

Is agent orange still used?

Not officially. But similar compounds are still used.

TCDD, the most hazardous compound found on Agent Orange, can be produced unwillingly as a secondary metabolite of the production of some synthetic herbicides. 

Therefore, Agent Orange-like compounds can still be used. In fact, minor outbreaks had occurred recently.

is agent orange same as napalm?

No. Napalm was a bomb capable of causing painful death, burn, and asphyxiation. Agent Orange was a herbicide applied as a defoliant and used to kill crops during the Vietnam war and the Malayan Emergency. The effects of Agent Orange were not immediate.

Is agent orange a war crime?

The subject is controversial. The countries that used Agent Orange do not consider it a War Crime officially, but the populations affected by it do.

Britain first used Agent Orange as a tactic of warfare during the Malayan Emergency (also known as Anti–British National Liberation War (1948–1960). This opened up a precedent for the U.S to use it during the Vietnam War

is agent orange a chemical weapon?

Officially, there’s no international agreement on this subject. Countries that used Agent Orange don’t assume that they’ve used a chemical weapon.

The outcome of using Agent Orange extensively is similar to the result of applying a chemical weapon, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that there was an intent of using a chemical weapon.

Does agent orange still remain in Vietnam?

Yes. Not in its original form or stored, but in the soil and among the food chain of certain biomes. There are still many areas contaminated by agent orange.

Is Agent Orange the same as RoundUp?

No. RoundUp’s active ingredient is glyphosate, which is a very different molecule. But the mechanism of action has similar herbicide consequences. RoundUp is also considered harmful to humans, but less than Agent Orange.

Who produced Agent Orange?

Dow Chemical and Monsanto were the bigger producers.

Citations

https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/15625#section=Toxicity
https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/1486#section=EPA-Hazardous-Waste-Number
https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/1480#section=Safety-and-Hazards
https://www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/agentorange/conditions/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agent_Orange
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam_War
https://www.britannica.com/science/herbicide
https://za.uplonline.com/download_links/Wgy0YBeLEVSj4a2oOwvotxU3i1AkWdEUQsURegZc.pdf

Lavy M, Estelle M. Mechanisms of auxin signaling. Development. 2016 Sep 15;143(18):3226-9. doi: 10.1242/dev.131870. PMID: 27624827; PMCID: PMC5047657.

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