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Vietnam, US cooperate on Agent Orange, but scientists still divided

Fri, 22 Jun 2007 10:12:01 GMT
Author : DPA
Asia World News

Copyright © 2007 Respective Author

Hanoi - Vietnamese news media reacted favourably Friday to an announcement of new cooperative US-Vietnamese efforts to remedy the damage done by Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant US forces sprayed on Vietnamese jungles during the Vietnam War. But they failed to cover a roundtable discussion Thursday between top Agent Orange researchers from the US and Vietnam which showcased continuing scientific disagreement.

The Ford Foundation Wednesday announced the establishment of a US-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange, as well as a projected 7.5 million dollars in new grants to help Vietnam to clean up dioxin, the toxic element in Agent Orange, and to treat dioxin-related disorders. Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet has said he intends to raise the issue of compensation for Agent Orange when he meets with US President George W Bush on Friday.

For many years, the US was reluctant to acknowledge Vietnamese claims of Agent Orange-related damage, saying the science was not yet definitive. But over the past two years, Vietnamese and American groups have begun cooperating on identifying locations of Agent Orange contamination in Vietnam, and the US has provided funds for treating disabilities believed to be related to dioxin.

"I have got to tell you, I have been around the Agent Orange issue for three decades," said Tom Leckinger, Hanoi representative of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. "It has moved more in the past two years than it had in the entire 30 years prior to that."

"The level of cooperation has never been better," agreed Nathan Sage, environmental officer at the US Agency for International Development in Vietnam.

Part of the change, Leckinger said, is due to a study in late 2005 carried out by Hatfield Consulting, a chemical analysis firm. The study found high levels of dioxin contamination on former US airbases where Agent Orange had been stored, but no broader dioxin contamination in agricultural areas.

"That freed up the Vietnamese government, I believe, to finally come forward and say, 'Now we have to address this,' without being concerned about agricultural and seafood exports," Leckinger said.

Vietnamese officials had reportedly worried that emphasizing Agent Orange contamination might lead importers to think Vietnamese food was unsafe.

But while the US government says it is happy to help Vietnam identify where Agent Orange was sprayed and stored, and help treat various kinds of disabilities, it does not accept the Vietnamese claim that some 3 million people suffer health problems related to Agent Orange. Vietnamese officials say these disorders range from cancers to birth defects.

The US National Academy of Sciences has identified several diseases which are likely linked to exposure to Agent Orange, most definitively diabetes, but it says there is no evidence for a link to birth defects.

In a presentation on Thursday in Hanoi, American researcher Dr Alvin Young, who has been studying the effects of Agent Orange since the early 1970s, criticized the Hatfield study.

He said the study presented data on the former US airbase at Danang in a fashion that made it impossible to determine how bad the contamination was, or how much stemmed from Agent Orange. And he disputed Hatfield's finding that dioxin contamination in the city of Can Tho stemmed from Agent Orange use.

In Can Tho, Young said, "it is highly unlikely that Hatfield Consultants detected TCDD from Agent Orange," because there are no records of Agent Orange being sprayed there. The source, Young said, was more likely open burning of municipal waste.

Young was in Vietnam for a workshop between the US Department of Defense and Vietnam's Defence Ministry, which closed Tuesday.

The US presented the Vietnamese with exhaustive records of the US's Operation Ranch Hand, which sprayed the defoliant on Vietnamese jungles to deprive Communist forces of camouflage. The records showed how much of the chemical had been stored and sprayed, and where.

Young said the records showed the US had sprayed a total of 74 million liters of the herbicide. But he said at most 4 per cent of the Agent Orange used in Vietnam had been left unused, meaning relatively little of it would have been dumped at the "hot spots."

Dr Le Ke Son, head of the Vietnamese Red Cross's Agent Orange victims programme, disputed Young's conclusions. A number of studies by Vietnamese scientists have claimed to find patterns of birth defects in the children of people who were exposed to Agent Orange.

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