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The amount of dioxin-containing herbicide sprays, such as Agent Orange, used during the Vietnam War have been significantly underestimated, according to new research.

A study published in this week's Nature suggests that millions of Vietnamese were likely to have been directly exposed to the herbicides. It also appears that at least twice as much dioxin — which has been linked to cancer, immune disorders and birth disorders — was dispersed than previously estimated.

Jeanne Mager Stellman of Columbia University, New York, and colleagues re-analysed the military data documenting the amount of Agent Orange used, and found that previous approximations underestimated the quantity sprayed by more than 7 million litres.

Herbicides such as Agent Orange were used by US and Republic of Vietnam forces to defoliate forests and mangroves, to clear the perimeters of military installations, and to destroy 'unfriendly' crops — the latter being a tactic to decrease enemy food supplies. Spray missions were directed over carefully defined targets, many of which were sprayed repeatedly.

The new research will help epidemiologists to assess the health effects caused by herbicide spraying, and give a clearer idea of the location of Agent Orange 'hot spots'. The findings are also likely to provoke a strong reaction from the Vietnamese government and from US veterans' groups — some of which are still seeking compensation for exposure to Agent Orange.

Link to research paper in Nature

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