DIOXIN ISSUE IN VIETNAM: SCIENCE OR POLITICS?
The United States-Vietnam Scientific Conference on Human Health and Environmental Effects of Agent Orange/Dioxin, a four-day landmark scientific conference in Hanoi involving Vietnamese and US government scientists and international experts, quietly came to an uneasy end on March 6, 2002. The reasons appear to be the Vietnamese government efforts to turn it into a politic conference to serve its own agenda. In fact, the Dioxin issue has been covered by Nhan Dan, the official newspaper of the Vietnamese Communist Party, in its political section.
In July 2001, the governments of Vietnam and the United States agreed to organize a conference that would bring together experts throughout the world to provide a broad assessment of the data available on the health and environmental effects of Agent Orange/Dioxin, to identify future research directions, and to provide a foundation for future cooperative research projects and funding. The preset goals of this conference include (1) exchange of current scientific information on the health and environmental effects of Agent Orange/Dioxins, (2) exchange of current scientific information on remediation measures to reduce exposures to Agent Orange/Dioxins in humans and the environment, and (3) examination of the current state of knowledge and identification of future research. It was also agreed that the conference would be opened to all interested parties including invited speakers and discussants, independent scientists, representatives from non-profit organizations, and journalists.
Instead of striving to achieve the conference goals, the Vietnamese government launched a campaign aiming at its own goals. The primary goal is to make money by either reviving the issue of compensation/reparation with help from Messrs. Tom Corey and Paul Sutton of the Vietnam Veterans of America or by threatening to file a class-action lawsuit in the United States. Although some US veterans have received some compensation for diseases associated with Dioxin exposure, the compensation was a political decision made by President Clinton and the US government scientists have not recognized a causal effect. US-Vietnam relations were normalized in 1995 after Vietnam dropped claims war reparations or compensation. The secondary goal is to make sure that Dioxin is only present at concentrations desired by the Vietnamese government with help from Dr. Arnold Schecter of the UT-Houston School of Public Health in Dallas, Texas. As a result, abstracts, summaries, and even titles and presenters for the Vietnamese presentations were not submitted to the organizing committee of the conference on time. During the conference, US scientists indicated that the Vietnamese assertion that the Vietnam War defoliant Agent Orange is to blame for generations of birth defects and other diseases is questionable and that Vietnam's researches need to be reviewed and replicated. It is highly possible that international journalists were prohibited from attending the conference because the Vietnamese government does not want to expose a lack of scientific information as well as an inadequate state of knowledge relating to the cause and effect of the Dioxin exposure in Vietnam.
As a scientific organization, the American Vietnamese Science and Technology Society (VAST) has deeply concerned about the environmental pollution in Vietnam, especially pollution from persistent organic pollutants such as Dioxin, insecticides, pesticides, and other agricultural and industrial chemicals. We believe the environmental pollution in Vietnam should be addressed properly and adequately in order to protect the public health and the natural environment. That point of view has been shared by scientists including Dr. Christopher Portier of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
We believe that Agent Orange victims of the Ranch Hand operation, either Vietnamese or American, deserve compensation, but scientific evidence is required to determine if their diseases were actually caused by Agent Orange. We agree with Ambassador Raymond Burghardt that determination of the impact of Agent Orange after so long would be "extraordinarily complex" and had to take into account genetic environmental, viral and nutritional factors. It is more complicated because of the presence of many other carcinogens and teratogens in the Vietnam environment today. We hope that the needed scientific evidence would be established with the humanitarian assistance from international communities, especially the United States, and the sincere cooperation from the Vietnamese government.
The fact that the majority of the so-called Agent Orange victims are children and teenagers suggests that they are likely impacted by more recent chemicals other than Dioxin in Agent Orange, whose usage was stopped more than 30 years ago. These chemicals include tens thousand tons of insecticides and pesticides imported legally and illegally to boost agricultural production after the “reform” since the mid 1980’s and several hundreds thousand tons of DDT imported from the former Soviet Union to fight malaria in the early 1990’s. In 1989, Dr. Schecter detected extremely high concentrations of DDT in breast milk samples from South Vietnam, and the DDT concentrations still remained at the same magnitude in 1999. Using the California drinking water standards as a basis, DDT was 80,000 times higher while Dioxin was only 3 times higher in 1999. We are very concerned about the DDT contamination in Vietnam because DDT, which is one of the “dirty dozen” the Stockholm Convention agreed to eliminate in May 2001, has similar environmental and health effects as Dioxin. Unfortunately, Vietnam has been selected by the United Nations Environmental Programme as one of nine case studies in the world to study potential impacts of the dirty dozen persistent organic pollutants. We hope the Vietnam case study will succeed.
Although a lot of politics were played before, during, and after the scientific conference in Hanoi, valuable scientific data and information were provided or discussed by scientists around the world. We appreciate the effort and contribution of these scientists. We also appreciate the US-Vietnam Cooperative Research Program of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences for its efforts to convey any available information relating to the conference to all interested parties around the world through its website at www.niehs.nih.gov/external/usvcrp. We are looking forward to seeing the complete abstracts of the papers presented by the Vietnamese scientists at the conference posted on this website.
Xuan C. Tran
Chairman of the Board of Directors
American Vietnamese Science and Technology Society
March 8, 2002