International Scientific Conference to commemorate the 55th anniversary of Agent Orange Day

by Susan Schnall at

From 1961 to 1971, the United States undertook a massive defoliation program as an instrument of war, over the years poisoning an estimated 4.8 million Vietnamese. The initial testing of chemical herbicides occurred in Konton province on August 10, 1961. Two weeks later, a second test run took place along Highway 13 north of the city known as Saigon. And then President Kennedy signed an executive order that began the massive defoliation program as an instrument of war.

This herbicidal warfare program has been considered by most of the international community to be a violation of international law and a war crime. In 1969, the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution restating the 1925 Geneva Protocol that prohibited the use of chemical or biological agents in international conflicts. The resolution specifically declared as a violation of that treaty, the use of any chemical agents of warfare, whether gaseous, liquid or solid, which might be employed because of their direct toxic effects on man, animal, or plants.

Our public health/science group has been brought together by our interest in and concern about the lasting impact of the use of Agent Orange/dioxin sprayed multiple times over south and central Vietnam. We have spent months, some of us years, reviewing studies and articles.

In June, 2012, our delegation of science and public health professionals affiliated with the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign, a project of VVAW and Vets For Peace (VFP), were invited to Vietnam by the Vietnam Association for the Victims of Agent Orange/dioxin (VAVA). The purpose of our trip was to visit people suffering from illnesses recognized among American veterans to be associated with the spraying and use of AO/dioxin by the US military during the American conflict in Vietnam. We also surveyed the land that continues to be contaminated by dioxin, threatening illness, pain, and suffering to thousands of Vietnamese, long after the cessation of fighting. Most striking are the severe birth defects, some of which are recognized as associated with Vietnam service among US veterans, now seen also in Vietnamese children.

Following the June, 2012 trip, members of the delegation continued to meet and discuss current studies and articles related to the Agent Orange/dioxin toxicity in Vietnam. We organized presentations to educate the American public and spoke before various audiences and constituencies. Some of our speaking engagements included students and faculty at the City University of New York, the American Public Health Association, Vietnam Archives in San Antonio, medical students, nurses and attending physicians at Cornell Medical College, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) community on a panel with Noam Chomsky, the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and high school students in the New York City area.

In August, 2016 members of the American delegation included: Dr. Franklin Mirer, Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at Hunter College of the City University of New York and former Director of the Health and Safety Department for the United Automobile Workers; Dr. Jean Grassman, Associate Professor at City University of New York and researcher investigating the effect of dioxins on human populations; Marie Elivert, a health care executive with over 35 years in the private and public sector; Dr. Daniel Robie, Assistant Professor at York College of the City University of New York where he conducts research, has authored a number of scientific papers, and teaches physical, analytical, and inorganic chemistry. Also, myself, Susan Schnall, an Adjunct Assistant Professor at New York University in the School of Professional Studies and worked for 31 years as a senior executive in public hospitals in New York, and am a co-coordinator of the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign and a board member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

We were invited to the International Scientific Conference to commemorate the 55th anniversary of Agent Orange Day. We attended a conference on August 8 and 9, and a rally on August 10. The conference was titled: Assessment of the Harmful Effects of Agent Orange. Four members of our delegation wrote papers and gave presentations: Dr. Frank Mirer on: Updated authoritative reviews of Agent Orange/dioxin toxicity; Susan Schnall: Results of Studies on the relationship between exposure to Agent Orange and diseases in American veterans; Dr. Daniel Robie: Dioxins: Chemistry, Sources, and Sinks of Environmental Importance in Vietnam; Dr. Jean Grassman: An examination of the plausibility for contemporary human health effects from Agent Orange in Vietnam.

On August 10th I delivered a speech to the rally, representing VVAW and VFP as well as the Science delegation in which I said:

“I come before you today as a Vietnam era veteran of the American War in Vietnam to recognize and take responsibility for my government’s use of Agent Orange/dioxin on your people and your land.

“We, the American Vietnam veterans took part in that spraying. We, the American people allowed that devastation to take place. We allowed the chemical companies to develop and use an herbicide that would destroy the mangrove and hardwood forests and that would destroy the food supply. Those once young American Vietnam soldiers have become old men and live with the memory of what they did so many years ago to your country and people.

“And they don’t want to be thanked for their service in Vietnam. They want to be forgiven. Today we have a responsibility to those we harmed, to those who were harmed in our name, to heal those affected. We pledge to work with you, toward healing the lasting legacy of this war, to clean up the land of the contaminants we left behind and to heal the people. We pledge to work with you, toward healing the lasting legacy of this American war, to clean up the land of the contaminants we left behind and to heal the people.”