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chicago tribune

Agent Orange disease back in spotlight
"I want the United States government to see the damage to our bodies, to our land and to our people."

By Alexa Aguilar, Tribune staff reporter. The Associated Press contributed to this report
Published June 26, 2007

Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune

Nguyen Thi Hong, 60, is in the last stages of terminal breast cancer, her legs covered in a scabby rash.

Nguyen Van Quy, 52, weighs just 83 pounds because of his stomach cancer. At home in Vietnam, his two children are severely disabled and a third child died of congenital defects soon after birth.

Hong and Quy, along with two other Vietnamese citizens, are stopping in four American cities, including Chicago, this week to drum up awareness for their illnesses, which they say were caused by Agent Orange, a defoliant the U.S. sprayed on the Vietnam landscape during the Vietnam War.

Last week, they sat in a New York courthouse as their lawyers sought to reinstate a proposed class-action suit in arguments before a federal appeals court. The lawyers argued that U.S. chemical companies committed war crimes when they provided the U.S. military with herbicides containing the toxin dioxin. They want a jury to decide whether the companies should pay damages to 3 million Vietnamese.

A U.S. District judge in New York dismissed the lawsuit in 2005, ruling that Agent Orange cannot be considered a poison under international rules of war, that there is no evidence to show the companies acted with criminal intent, and that there are no large studies proving dioxin is to blame.

American troops sprayed more than 21 million gallons of Agent Orange on Vietnam between 1962 and 1971 to destroy vegetative cover used by communist forces.

Hong she said she was exposed directly to the herbicide in 1964 while a member of the National Liberation Front. In 1990, she moved to Bien Hoa, where dioxin had been stored. The residents drank water and ate fish from a nearby lake, she said. In 1999, she was diagnosed with cancer.

"I am here as living evidence," she said Monday through a translator, standing near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in downtown Chicago. "I want the United States government to see the damage to our bodies, to our land and to our people."

Thousands of American veterans receive medical disability benefits related to Agent Orange. In 1984, seven chemical companies settled out of court for $180 million with U.S. veterans who claimed the herbicide caused their health problems.

On Friday, when President Bush met with Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet, he mentioned the lingering effects of Agent Orange and the $3 million Congress approved to clean up the "hot spots" that remain in the country. And this month, the Ford Foundation formed a "dialogue group," which includes Vietnamese leaders and Christine Todd Whitman, a former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, to study the issue.

But advocates say studies and dialogue aren't helping the millions of Vietnamese exposed to Agent Orange who are scraping by on the compensation they receive from their government.

"Dialogue is better than no dialogue," said Merle Ratner, co-coordinator of the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility Campaign, which is working to raise awareness of the lawsuit. "But this is urgent. These people are dying."

The U.S. organizations Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Veterans for Peace, United for Peace & Justice and the National Lawyers Guild are sponsoring the group's visit.

Seth Waxman, a former U.S. solicitor general who argued on behalf of the companies last week, said Monday that he wouldn't comment on the case because it was pending.

He said in court last week that the companies were following the instructions of U.S. leaders during wartime and that the use of Agent Orange was a battlefield decision. The plaintiffs can't sue the U.S. government because of sovereign immunity.

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