By CBC News Online
In Vietnam in 1975, South Vietnam fell to the communists, ending a divisive conflict for the United States. And while the war is long over, the consequences are not; especially the “Grim Legacy” of Agent Orange. The Vietnamese insist the chemical defoliant used by the American military is still causing birth defects and deadly illnesses. The U.S. compensates its own veterans for the effects of Agent Orange, but it has so far refused to help the Vietnamese people. In the spring of 2000, the CBC’s Ian Hanomansing travelled to Vietnam for a firsthand look at the problem and the efforts of a Canadian scientific team to find some answers.
Along a narrow trail lined by rice paddies and simple homes, Dr. Troung Cong Binh is taking us and a group of medical students on a house call. But there’s no sense of urgency to this visit, no hope of curing his patient; just sadness and frustration about the plight of the family that lives here. This boy, Phan Tuan Anh, looks 10, but he’s 16-years-old and he’s dying. It is a cruel death, his muscles wasting away. Crueller still, because his parents have already watched one son die of the mysterious disease. And another, a 14-year-old, has begun suffering the same symptoms.
“The parents know the progression of the disease. The younger one will get worse, like his brother, ” Dr. Binh says.
Their mother says she has no idea why three of her eight children have been stricken with the illness. But Dr. Binh says he has little doubt the culprit is Agent Orange.
“I think that Agent Orange is one of the main causes. These diseases are the effects of the Agent Orange because the rate of disease is very high. We find some families have a large number of members who have got the same disease,” Dr. Binh says.
Agent Orange got its name from the orange bands on its drums. It was a potent blend of two herbicides and was sprayed around U.S. military bases in Vietnam to keep perimeters clear. But that was just a small part of its use. For 10 years beginning in 1961, the U.S. Forces drenched Vietnam with the defoliant, using more than 12 million gallons to strip the enemy of its cover and its food, including rice. The problem is that the U.S. government didn’t realize until the late 1960’s that the compound could be lethal to more than just vegetation. It was contaminated by dioxin — the most toxic chemical made by man.
So today there are those who say because of Agent Orange, the Vietnam war is still claiming victims. The Vietnamese government has made sure its citizens are well-versed in the evils of Agent Orange. A display at a museum in Ho Chi Minh City leaves no doubt that the U.S. spray has caused deformities and deaths.
A TV documentary, never before seen outside of Vietnam, hammers home that message with graphic pictures of what the government says are victims of spraying. Is this science or propaganda? To what extent might these cases be the result of extreme malnutrition and chronic disease in parts of Vietnam?
Dr. Nuygen Thi Ngoc Phuong is head of Ho Chi Minh city’s biggest maternity hospital. She has been here for more than 30 years and has studied the impact of Agent Orange. She is certain it’s still causing birth defects. She says more than two-thirds of the patients are affected by Agent Orange.
Dr. Phuong says statistics show an unmistakable pattern: the rate of child deformities among mothers who were exposed to Agent Orange is much higher than among mothers living close by who were not exposed to the defoliant.
“There is a linkage between dioxin exposure and birth defects � the increased rate of birth defects in my hospital in South Vietnam,” she says.
No one questions that dioxin can be deadly, and that there is an alarming number of birth defects in this region. The problem, until now though, has been a lack of independently verifiable scientific evidence. That is, until a team of Canadian scientists and doctors entered the picture.
In an office in West Vancouver, scientists from a private research company, Hatfield Consultants, discuss their next trip to Vietnam.
One area that they have studied extensively, near the Ho Chi Minh Trail in west-central Viet Nam, is the remote Aluoi Valley. Funded by various Canadian government agencies, the scientists analyze the soil, sources of food, including fish in local ponds, as well as blood and breast milk from people who live in the valley.
In a report released in April 2000, they’ve found that dioxin contamination from Agent Orange is not just an historical fact, but a continuing problem. It’s in the food chain and showing up in people born long after the spraying ended. The Canadian scientists have also confirmed dioxin levels from Agent Orange in this area, the site of a former U.S. military base, are far above what’s considered safe in Canada and that the 20 families who live here should be relocated. But on what many consider to be the key question: is dioxin contamination the cause of the high rate of birth defects in Vietnam, the study provides no answer.
David Levy has been involved in the project since the beginning six years ago.
“There are higher percentages of birth defects in people living in close proximity to the contaminated site,” Levy says. “What we don’t know at the present time is to what extent other factors could be contributing to this. The maternal nutrition has a very big influence on the subsequent health of the baby that’s born. These people are extremely poor, their nutrition is — is not very good. And so we need to rule out some of these alternative explanations for the high birth defects.”
In Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, officials have been following the Hadfield study closely. We brought a summary of the report here and showed it to Dr. Le Cao Dai, Vietnam’s top expert on Agent Orange.
Dr. Dai says he’s confident that the Canadians will eventually conclude there is a link between birth defects and Agent Orange. But he says in the meantime, Vietnam needs help urgently.
“The first priority is to clean up the area. And continue to look at other problems. For example, malformation and so on,” Dai says.
So the Americans should be paying for the cleanup?
“I do believe that the American government should do something,” Dai says.
In fact the U.S. government is doing something, but for its own vets, not the Vietnamese — providing compensation for some illnesses and one birth defect which may be related to Agent Orange. Washington says while there isn’t conclusive data on the impact of exposure in Vietnam to the defoliant, dioxins are known to cause certain diseases, including: lung and throat cancer, lymphoma and prostate cancer, as well as the birth defect spina bifida in children of people exposed; these are some of the same maladies the Vietnamese have identified. So does that U.S. policy create at least a moral obligation on the country to help the Vietnamese, some of whom were allies during the war?
A State Department spokesman would only provide us with this statement: “the U.S. Government believes the Agent Orange issue should be addressed on a scientific basis and has told the Vietnamese government that we are prepared to conduct joint research in Vietnam on the effects of dioxins in Agent Orange and other herbicides and are awaiting a response to the offer.”
Back in the countryside, the debate over Agent Orange matters little to the Phan family as they watch another son slowly die.
To the Vietnamese at least, he will be the latest casualty in a war that ended years ago.