The Legacy of Agent Orange
BBC website, April 29, 2005
Thirty years after hostilities ended between
the US and Vietnam, relations remain strained by one of America's
most notorious weapons during the war, the chemical Agent Orange.
The Vietnamese believe that the powerful
weed killer - the use of which was intended to destroy crops and
jungle providing cover for the Vietcong - is responsible for massively
high instances of genetic defects in areas that were sprayed.
Nguyen Trong Nhan, from the Vietnam Association
Of Victims Of Agent Orange and a former president of Vietnamese
Red Cross, believes the use of Agent Orange was a "war crime".
He told BBC World Service's One Planet
programme that Vietnam's poverty was a direct result of the use
of Agent Orange.
"They are the poorest and the most
vulnerable people - and that is why Vietnam is a very poor country,"
"We help the people who are victims
of the Agent Orange and the dioxins, but the capacity of our government
is very limited."
Campaigners such as Mr Nguyen believe
they have been left with little choice but to resort to legal
action, and in 2004 took the chemical companies that produced
Agent Orange to court in the US.
But last month an American Federal District
Judge dismissed the case on the grounds that use of the defoliant
did not violate international law that the time. An appeal has
been lodged against this decision.
The US sprayed 80m litres of poisonous
chemicals during Operation Ranchhand. There were many Agents used,
including Pink, Green and White, but Agent Orange was used the
most - 45m litres sprayed over a 10th of Vietnam.
It was also used - mostly in secret -
over parts of neighbouring Cambodia.
Andrew Wells-Dang, Fund for Reconciliation
But Agent Orange in particular was laced with dioxins - extremely
toxic to humans. Dioxins accumulate in the body to cause cancers.
Anyone eating or drinking in contaminated areas then receives
an even higher dose.
Spraying stopped in 1971, after more
than 6,000 missions and growing public disquiet.
But the ground in many areas of Vietnam
remains contaminated by Agent Orange. A number of people in these
areas believe they are victims of the chemical.
One woman said the herbicide had caused
a skin disease which gave her "great suffering".
"If the US and Vietnamese governments
could care for people like me, that would be comforting,"
Another man said his legs have "wasted
away" as a result of Agent Orange.
"When I realise I have been contaminated
with poisonous chemicals, and the US government hasn't done anything
to help, I feel very said, and it makes me cry," he added.
"Now I always get severe headaches.
My first child has just died - he had physical deformities. The
second one is having headaches like me."
Cancers and disease
Food and supplies are still delivered
to victims of Agent Orange. Many were not born when the US sprayed
the area - but there is strong evidence the chemicals are still
having an effect.
A disproportionately large number of
children in the areas affected are born with defects, both mental
and physical. Many are highly susceptible to cancers and disease.
And Vietnamese doctors are convinced
Agent Orange is to blame.
"This is due to the US sprayings,"
said Dr Hong Tien Dong, village doctor who has lived in the area
all his life.
"Before, in this area, the environment
was quite clean.
"Now it has become like this."
In the late 1990s, a Canadian study tested
soil, pond water, fish and duck tissue, as well as human blood
samples, and found dangerously high levels of dioxin travelling
up the food chain to humans.
Dioxin concentrations have been found
to be 13 times higher than average in the soil of affected areas,
and, in human fat tissue, 20 times as high.
A Japanese study, comparing areas sprayed
with those that were not, found children were three times more
likely to be born with cleft palates, or extra fingers and toes.
There are eight times as many hernias
in such children, and three times as many born with mental disabilities.
In 2001, scientists found that people
living in an Agent Orange "hotspot" at Binh-Hoa near
Ho Chi Minh City have 200 times the background amount of dioxin
in their bloodstreams.
America "normalised" relations
with Vietnam 10 years ago, and the country has now embraced the
No representative of the US government
in Vietnam would talk to One Planet about Agent Orange.
However, in 1984, chemical companies
that manufactured the Agent paid $180m into a fund for United
States veterans following a lawsuit. They did not, however, admit
Meanwhile in 2004 - at the same time
Mr Nguyen first brought his lawsuit - a joint-US-Vietnamese project
to examine the long-term genetic impact of Agent Orange was cancelled.
Some Americans in Vietnam fear that the
legacy of Agent Orange is overshadowing the new friendship between
the two countries.
"Many of the other obstacles have
been dealt with - trade and exchange and diplomatic relations,"
said Andrew Wells-Dang, from the Fund For Reconciliation And Development
- an American organisation set up in the 1980s with the aim of
improving relations between the countries.
He pointed out that the US has provided
funding for clearing mines that it dropped on Vietnam during the
"We think the US should do the same
with Agent Orange," he added.
"It's not going to go away, because
it affects a huge number of people in Vietnam.
"We would see this as an opportunity
for the US to take humanitarian action so that it doesn't become
an obstacle between the countries."
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