August 24, 2001
Following the release of a study by U.S. and Vietnamese researchers
revealing "alarmingly high" levels of dioxin in the blood of residents
of a southern Vietnamese city, U.S. and Vietnamese government scientists
agreed last month to hold a joint conference on the human health and
environmental effects of Agent Orange. The United States sprayed
millions of gallons of Agent Orange and other defoliants on Vietnam from
1962 to 1971. The chemicals contained TCDD, the most dangerous form of
dioxin. Dioxin is a highly toxic organochlorine and known human
The study, conducted jointly by University of Texas Professor Arnold
Schecter and Le Cao Dai, executive director of Hanoi's Red Cross,
appeared in the May 2001 issue of the Journal of Occupational and
Environmental Medicine. It reported that thirty years after the end of
Agent Orange spraying, residents of the southern Vietnamese city of Bien
Hoa—even those who didn't live there during the Vietnam War or were born
after the war ended—show highly elevated levels of dioxin in their
blood. Blood samples from twenty Bien Hoa residents showed dioxin levels
up to 135 times higher than samples taken from Hanoi residents.
Schecter said such levels increased the risk of dioxin-related
illnesses, including cancer, lower IQ and emotional problems for
children, and spontaneous abortions and birth defects if the mother was
Bien Hoa was once home to a huge U.S. base where a major spill of Agent
Orange during the Vietnam War likely contaminated a lake where locals
fish and swim. Some suspect that the contamination of local residents
has been caused by eating fish from the lake; however, pork and duck
meat should also be tested according to Schechter.
Schecter estimates that about a million Vietnamese have been exposed to
elevated levels of Agent Orange. However, he said that the current state
of research makes it impossible to tell how many have been made ill.
In talks in Hanoi in July, U.S. and Vietnamese government scientists
agreed to organize a pilot study to screen soil and sediment for dioxin
over the next few months, and to hold a joint conference next year.
As a result of the agreement, US$850,000 of existing U.S. Congressional
funding will likely be made available for joint research, and more
funding may be allocated next year. Although Schecter called the
agreement "long overdue good news," he stressed that work should focus
on the "public health emergency" of Vietnamese exposed to dioxin from
Agent Orange. Instead of the proposed prolonged surveys of soil and
sediment samples, Shechter strongly advocated concentrating on immediate
widespread testing of blood and food samples.
Since animal fat is the source of 95% of dioxins in humans, Shechter
argues that there is an urgent need to determine which foods are
contaminated. He said the longer research is delayed, the more people
would be exposed. "This would be considered a public health emergency in
the United States and immediate action taken," he added.
Analysts say Vietnam is concerned that any evidence of food
contamination could hit its seafood and meat exports. At the same time,
the United States is wary of having to pay compensation if large numbers
of people are found to have been exposed to dioxin and cleanup of
contaminated areas is required.
The U.S. government argues that there is still no solid scientific proof
Agent Orange was responsible for a wide range of maladies, including
tens of thousands of mental and physical birth defects. Domestically,
however, the U.S. government has already granted 21,000 compensation
claims to Vietnam War veterans--many exposed to Agent Orange--who have
developed soft tissue cancer, Hodgkin's disease, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma,
diabetes and other illnesses.
In a related story, the Institute of Medicine--a non-governmental
advisory body to the U.S. government--released a report in April
2001showing "suggestive, but not conclusive" evidence linking veterans'
Agent Orange exposure to their children's development of acute
myelgenous leukemia, a fast-spreading form of leukemia that originates
in bone marrow cells. Following the release of the study, President Bush
directed the Veteran's Affairs Secretary to prepare legislation to
assist children with the disease. Also, last month the U.S. House of
Representatives unanimously voted to expand the list of service-related
illnesses for which Vietnam war veterans can claim compensation to
Sources: Environmental Media Services Press Release "Study Finds
Evidence of Ongoing Agent Orange Contamination in Vietnamese City," May
14, 2001; Reuters, David Brunnstrom, July 2, 3, 4, 2001; Randolph E.
Schmid "Agent Orange, Leukemia Link Studied" Associated Press, April
2001; Jim Abrams, "House Oks Extended Veterans Benefits" Associated
Press, July 31, 2001.
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