A little bit of help, for some
By Katrin Dauenhauer, Asia Times online, 11 July 2003 

WASHINGTON - More than 30 years after the spraying of Agent Orange in Vietnam by US troops during the war, the health effects on US veterans and their families as well as affected Vietnamese remain devastating, experts say.

Birth defects resulting from contamination with the chemical herbicide persist in today's third generation of grandchildren of the war and its victims - with no end in sight. An estimated 650,000 victims suffer from chronic illnesses in Vietnam alone, and another 500,000 have already died, researchers say.

"This is not a historical problem, but one with long-term consequences that have to be addressed," said Dr Wayne Dwernychuk, senior vice president of the Vancouver-based Hatfield Associates, an environmental-impact consulting agency. Dwernychuk spoke at a press briefing on Tuesday coordinated by the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, Oxfam America and the American Friends Service Committee.

Agent Orange victims and their families have been fighting for compensation since the 1970s. The most common result has been out of court settlements after court proceedings and negotiations that dragged on for years.

Next week, Representative Lane Evans, an Illinois Democrat, plans to introduce a new bill in the congressional committee on veterans affairs that will focus on aiding the children of Vietnam veterans. A broader bill is supposed to follow next year.

While the US government has only reluctantly taken responsibility for its own soldiers, it has shown even less interest in the affected Vietnamese population.

A conference at Yale University last April concluded that in Vietnam, the US had conducted the "largest chemical warfare campaign in history". No compensation for civilian Vietnamese victims has ever been offered. "It does not stretch current preoccupations to see Agent Orange/dioxin as a kind of weapon of mass destruction, finding its victims both among combatants and innocent civilians. The intended prey may have been forests and food supplies, but the ultimate price was and is paid by human beings," said John McAuliff, executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, in a statement on Tuesday.

So far, the US government has given no indication that it will aid Vietnamese victims and their families, who have been exposed to dioxin residues for the past 30 years. "It's very late to do anything," said Madame Nguyen Thi Binh, who until last year was the vice president of Vietnam. "We put this issue directly on the table with the US. So far they have not dealt with the problem. If our relationship is ever to be normal, the US has to accept responsibility."

US action is needed to address humanitarian needs in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam as a result of Agent Orange and related war legacies, she said, adding, "Go and see the situation for yourself."

"In general, Americans find the case for responsibility for consequences to fall more clearly upon other countries than upon ourselves. This may be another example of American exceptionalism, linked psychologically and politically to rejection of the International Criminal Court," said McAuliff.

Dwernychuk and a group of other environmental scientists recently conducted research on dioxin levels from wartime herbicides. The study found that rather than naturally dispersing, Agent Orange has remained in the ground in concentrations more than 100 times the safe levels for farmland in Canada.

"Studies can be proposed until hell freezes over," said Dwernychuk, "but they are not going to assist the Vietnamese in a humanitarian sense one iota. We state emphatically that no additional research on human health is required to facilitate intervention or to protect the local citizens."

Agent Orange contains small amounts of a dioxin called 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzon-p-dioxin (TCCD), an animal poison that is extremely difficult to purge from the environment - and the human body. "Once TCCD has entered the body it is there to stay due to its uncanny ability to dissolve in fats and to its rock-solid chemical stability," warns a World Health Organization briefing paper.

Between 1961 and 1971, US military forces dropped about 72 million liters of herbicidal agents on the Republic of Vietnam, including more than 45 million liters of dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange. For a long time, the US was reluctant to acknowledge any connection between chronic illnesses among its veterans and the use of the herbicide. Not until three years after the end of the war did the US Department of Veterans Affairs reluctantly agree to sponsor medical examinations of a fraction of former servicemen.

Finally, in 1988, under pressure from the former commander of the US Navy in Vietnam, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, the Pentagon compiled a classified report with data linking Agent Orange to 28 life-threatening conditions, including birth defects, skin disorders, neurological defects and almost every cancer known to medical science.

Though the military initially denied knowing about the terrible effects the herbicides have on human beings, military scientist Dr James Clary admitted the truth in 1988. "When we initiated the herbicide program in the 1960s, we were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide," Clary wrote in a letter to a member of Congress investigating Agent Orange. "However, because the material was to be used on the enemy, none of us were overly concerned."


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