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House Committee on Foreign Affairs

Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and the Global Environment

Speech by
Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong
Head of Women’s Health Department
Ho Chi City Medical University

Our Forgotten Responsibility:
What Can We Do To Help Victims of Agent Orange?

Thursday, May 15, 2008
10:00 AM - 1:00 PM
Room 2172
Rayburn House Office Building

at the Public Hearing
Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and the Global Environment
House Foreign Affairs Committee

Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong
Head of Women’s Health Department
Ho Chi City Medical University

Our forgotten responsibility:
What can we do for the victims of Agent Orange

The Honorable Chairman Faleomavaega, Congress members, Ladies and Gentlemen,

First of all, I would like to extend my sincere thanks to Chairman Faleomavaega and the Subcommittee for organizing this Hearing on “Our forgotten responsibility: What can we do for the victims of Agent Orange.” I am pleased to have this opportunity to discuss the legacy of Agent Orange/Dioxin and how we can work together for the victims, in general and in Viet Nam.

I am testifying in my capacity as a medical doctor who has been working for nearly 40 years in a big obstetrics-gynecology hospital in Ho Chi Minh City – Tu Du hospital – where more than 45,000 babies are born a year – among them, about 2 % who are deformed.

Forty years ago, when I was an intern, I delivered for the first time in my life, a severely deformed baby – it had no brain and limbs. It was horrible for me, I was nauseas, vomiting and shaking. And how was the scared young mother? She was in shock when she saw her baby. Then she cried for many hours; many days. She thought she had committed some unforgivable mistake and was being punished by God. You can imagine how much she suffered!

Since then, every day or two, I have witnessed such birth defects and mother’s sufferings. But, for many years, I didn’t know what caused these tragic events.

After 1975, many American Vietnam Veterans came to Tu Du hospital and asked about birth defects and cancers related to toxic chemicals sprayed over the Southern part of Viet Nam during wartime. I began looking for documents written on the spraying of toxic chemicals and happened to run across a report about this subject published by the US National Academy of Sciences in 1974.

Only then, did I realize that the deformed babies I delivered might have a causal relationship to the toxic chemicals that the US Air Forces repeatedly sprayed over my country – on a large scale – for more than 10 years! With my colleagues, I started to study the problem.

The spraying of Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals covered not only inland and mangrove forests, but also crop lands and people in villages!

More than 20 million gallons of toxic chemicals containing more than 366 kg of Dioxin were sprayed over the land and people of Viet Nam. Only one billionth of a gram of Dioxin can cause cancers, birth defects, miscarriages, etc.  Dioxin is the most toxic man-made chemical substance in terms of its effect on human-beings. The spraying of these toxic agents (Agent Orange, Blue, White, Purple, Green, Pink, etc.) destroys the environment, and biodiversity, causing annual natural casualties such as flooding.  It is a cruel destroyer of all life in my country.

While the suffering caused by Agent Orange is widespread, I would like to tell you primarily about the effects on the health of exposed people, among whom are my patients.

Many studies published in international scientific journals such as Chemosphere (UK), Journal of the American Public Health Association and documents of the annual international Dioxin Conference have established a link between Agent Orange/Dioxin and cancers, abnormal pregnancy outcomes such as miscarriages, fetal death in-utero, neonatal death, birth defects, etc.

Recently, a joint Vietnamese- Japanese study on 47,000 veterans showed that the percentage of reproductive problems, birth defects and some other diseases is higher in the Agent Orange/Dioxin victims than in the non-exposed group.

In 1983, during the first international conference on “Long term Consequences of Herbicides and Defoliants used in Viet Nam during the wartime on Nature and Human Health” held in Ho Chi Minh city, scientists from 22 countries, including the US, recognized that the incidence of 5 categories of birth defects is abnormally high in Viet Nam as compared with the other countries in the world and in the region.

In 1970, the breast milk of mothers living in sprayed areas, analyzed by biochemists in the US,  had more than 1500 picrograms of dioxin, many thousands of times higher than that in the US, Japan, Canada and the standard level allowed by WHO.  Breast milk analysis done by laboratories in Canada and Germany still shows a very high dioxin level.

Because of this, victims are increasingly millions of innocent newborn babies breastfed by their exposed mothers. The half-life of dioxin in the human body is much longer than in the environment. So, dioxin may exert its effects over many generations of Vietnamese people!

The analysis of human fatty tissues of people exposed to Agent Orange in Viet Nam always indicates high dioxin levels.  The dioxin found in their bodies is 2,3,7,8 tetrachloro-dibenzo para dioxin – the form of dioxin that exists only in Agent Orange (and other agents like Agent Green, etc.)

Recently, in and around at least 3 hot spots which are former US Air Bases and where the toxic agents were stored, we discovered that dioxin remains at dangerously high levels and continues to contaminate the environment and local food sources, continuing to cause harmful effects on human health.

Susan Berresford, former President of the Ford Foundation, Convener of the US – Viet Nam dialogue group on Agent Orange/Dioxin, has recognized: “A worryingly high number of birth defects, cancers and other diseases have now been seen in American veterans and their families, as well as in many Vietnamese veterans, civilians, their offspring and those now living in the affected areas.”

Admiral Zumwalt, whose son, an American Vietnam Veteran, died of cancers and whose grandson was born with birth defects, after analyzing many studies on Agent Orange/Dioxin, made a statement before the Subcommittee of Human Resources of the US Congress in June 1996 saying that “the unique right decision the members of the US Congress can make is to recognize that Agent Orange/Dioxin can cause a wide range of diseases, illnesses and birth defects. So that, the American Vietnam Veterans should be correctly compensated”

And, in 1985, the American Vietnam Veteran’s lawsuit against the chemical companies that produced Agent Orange was settled out of court for 180 million USD.

The US government has also been making payments to the American Vietnam Veterans and their offspring for 13 diseases and defects recognized as consequences of dioxin exposure during the period of time they served in Viet Nam. But, despite the expenditure of billions of dollars, there is not enough being done to alleviate their suffering and we support their struggle to achieve justice!

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin in Vietnam are the most heavily exposed to dioxin in the world.  Commensurately, their suffering is also the most severe. The victims and their families face extremely difficult living conditions due to their illnesses and birth defects – consequences of Agent Orange/Dioxin exposure. The Vietnamese government, people, and particularly, the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin, and other NGOs in Viet Nam have done a lot to support those affected, materially and morally. But, due to our limited financial resources, we can not fully meet their needs, much as we hope to.  The victims who suffer from cancers are dying every day. They can not wait any longer for justice!

Since 2002, the US government has started to recognize the severity of the problem and to assist our clean up efforts with some millions USD.

Some NGOs like the Ford Foundation and US veterans’ groups are pioneering in the clean up efforts and in helping the victims. We highly appreciate their assistance. However, they, too, have limited resources.

Therefore, I would like to propose that you and your colleagues in the Congress continue the efforts of the US NGOs and veterans in acting decisively to heal the wounds of war for Vietnam’s more than 3 million Agent Orange victims by doing the following:

  1. Allocate sufficient funds for the urgent environmental remediation of hot spots where the US Air Forces stored toxic chemicals as well as for helping victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin and their families to receive appropriate health care, rehabilitation, education, vocational training and job creation and social services to meet their needs.
  2. Require the chemical companies who manufactured Agent Orange to recognize their responsibility. 

The American Public Health Association in its 2007 policy statement on Agent Orange recognized the responsibility of the US government and chemical companies to alleviate the harm caused by their use of Agent Orange/dioxin in recommending that,

 “... the US government and involved chemical companies provide resources for the disabled… provide medical and nursing services for those harmed by Agent Orange; develop community support organizations, including health care and educational and chronic care services… for American and Vietnamese people harmed…[and] remediate or attempt to clean up those areas of in Vietnam that still contain high levels of dioxin.” (APHA Policy # 20075)

I hope that this very first hearing on Agent Orange convened by the subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and the Global Environment will provide the US Congress and the US public with a better understanding of the severity of the suffering facing the victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin as well as the entire Vietnamese people. Support from the Congress for swift and effective actions to help victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin are of crucial importance in building mutual understanding between our two countries. It will usher in a new chapter of peace and solidarity between the peoples of our two countries.

Thank you for your attention.

Vietnam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility Campaign | info@vn-agentorange.org | P.O. Box 303, Prince Street, New York, NY 10012-0006