Countries consider joint study of Agent Orange Thanks Tommy
A personal note - In declassified Air Force documents of Agent Orange drops, I found that in my first month, 11 Oct. 68 - 9 Nov. 68 - 29,000 gallons of AO were dropped on Quang Tri Province. I remember the C-130's spraying, thinking it was insecticidecovering me and I wondered why it was killing the green plants all around.
By Julie Schmit
HANOI, Vietnam -- The Vietnam War ended 25 years ago in April, but for Ngo
Bao Thang, the battle continues.
The 58-year-old North Vietnamese veteran fought for five years in the former
South Vietnam, where U.S. forces sprayed the defoliant Agent Orange to
destroy jungle ground cover for North Vietnamese troops.
After the spraying, ''it was difficult for us to open our eyes,'' Ngo says.
''Then the forest became empty.''
Ngo has five children, two of whom are mentally disabled. The Vietnamese
government suspects the disabilities were caused by Ngo's exposure to Agent
No one really knows whether that is true. Agent Orange dioxin, considered
among the world's most toxic substances, has been linked to numerous
cancers, several other illnesses and one birth defect, spina bifida, says
the U.S. Institute of Medicine, which is under the National Academy of
Research in Vietnam has been piecemeal. However, momentum is building for
joint U.S. and Vietnamese studies that could help Vietnamese, exposed U.S.
veterans and people worldwide.
''Vietnam is the only country where so many people have been exposed to
dioxins at fairly high levels,'' says Chris Hatfield, president of Hatfield
Consultants, which is studying one heavily sprayed area. ''What is learned
here could help set more accurate standards for the world.''
Darkest aspects of war
The prospect of joint research got a boost Monday when U.S. Defense
Secretary William Cohen, in Vietnam for the first Defense secretary visit
since the war, reiterated U.S. willingness to do joint research. Last month,
Vietnamese officials assured a delegation from the Vietnam Veterans of
America that they also were ready to talk.
If research is done, it will look into one of the darkest aspects of the
Vietnam War. From 1961 to 1971, U.S. forces sprayed 20 million gallons of
herbicide, 60% of it Agent Orange, over more than 10% of South Vietnam. The
spraying, covering an area about the size of Vermont, was especially heavy
near the North Vietnam border and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The herbicide
was so powerful it killed mangrove forests and thick jungles. The impact is
still evident. Tenacious grasses cover large swaths of land where jungles
used to grow.
Agent Orange, named after the orange bands around the 55-gallon drums, was
meant to destroy plants, not to harm people. The dioxin was accidentally
created in the mixing of two herbicides, both of which were widely used in
the United States. The spraying ended after animal testing linked one of
Agent Orange's components to deformed fetuses.
Dioxins, mainly byproducts of industrial processes, exist worldwide. They
are mainly found in soil, dairy products, meat and fish.
The Vietnamese say that millions of people were exposed to Agent Orange and
that hundreds of thousands have since suffered from cancers, other illnesses
and birth defects. U.S. veterans have made similar claims. In 1984, they
settled a class-action lawsuit against the chemical makers, including Dow
and Monsanto. Veterans in South Korea also link illnesses to Agent Orange
spraying along the North Korean border in the late 1960s.
Industrial accidents in Europe also have exposed workers to high dioxin
levels. But only in Vietnam have so many people been exposed over such a
long period, says Arnold Schecter, a University of Texas dioxin expert who
calls Vietnam home to the world's largest dioxin contamination.
Since 1984, he has found people in the south of Vietnam with dioxin levels
higher than people in the north, which wasn't sprayed.
Hatfield, of the Canadian environmental research firm, spent five years
researching a single area of Vietnam. He also found high dioxin levels in
people born after the war. That indicates that the dioxin is ''still moving
from the soils to the food chain (especially fish) to people,'' he says.
His research indicates that Vietnam might have hundreds of ''hot spots''
where Agent Orange was heavily sprayed, accidentally spilled or applied
extensively to keep ground cover low around former U.S. military bases.
The Vietnamese, too, have conducted surveys that found higher cancer and
birth-defect rates among Vietnamese living near former U.S. military bases
and higher birth-defect rates among families of exposed veterans.
The studies, small and often lacking rigorous controls, are ''at best
suggestive'' that Agent Orange exposures have led to higher cancer and
birth-defect rates, Schecter says. Research is much stronger in linking
dioxin to cancer than to birth defects, he adds. Polio and malnutrition,
which was widespread in Vietnam for decades, might be responsible for many
of the malformations the Vietnamese often associate with Agent Orange, he
He agrees that more studies are needed. In the past, efforts to conduct
joint research have failed. Vietnamese and U.S. researchers have feared that
highlighting the issue could hurt Vietnam's rice and other agricultural
exports, even though plants do not absorb dioxin.
The State Department says the United States has offered to carry out joint
studies for several years, although advocates say Washington has been deeply
concerned about possible litigation from any findings.
''The biggest fear of our government is compensating Vietnamese victims, and
the biggest fear of the Vietnamese is that it would shut down their country
in terms of business,'' says Thomas Corey, vice president of the Vietnam
Veterans of America.
Even if more studies are done in Vietnam, they should not delay action from
being taken in known contaminated areas, Hatfield says. The environmental
research firm, working with the Vietnamese government, recommended recently
that 12 families be moved from their homes near a former U.S. military
airbase, which Hatfield says has dioxin-contaminated soil. Fish ponds, too,
should be closed, he says. Residents are being told not to eat the fatty
tissue of fish and ducks, where dioxins concentrate. He says a rapid
assessment of other suspected hot spots in Vietnam should be a top priority.
More studies, though would do little to help those already exposed. Ngo's
family lives in a two-room house with a dirt floor. The farmer scratches out
a living. Vietnam has few homes for the disabled and meager financial help
for suspected Agent Orange victims. Last month, it set up its first $700,000
fund for veterans and their families.
Ngo's biggest worry is who will take care of his disabled children when he
and his wife cannot.
Is Agent Orange to blame? ''I don't know,'' he says. ''We just called it the
thing that destroyed the forests.''