New findings on Agent Orange and dioxin in Vietnam

Issue 

A report released last month by the Canadian firm Hatfield Consultants calls for urgent international attention to problems created by United States spraying of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. The study found that the spraying has resulted in contamination of the country's food chain, which in turn has led to serious environmental and health problems.

The consultants spent the last five years studying the effects of the herbicides sprayed in Vietnam between 1962 and 1971. During that period, the US military's Operation Ranch Hand included spraying approximately 72 million litres of herbicides on more than 1.5 million hectares (about 10% of South Vietnam). About one-third of the area was sprayed more than once, and 52,000 hectares were sprayed more than four times.

According to official US reports, Operation Ranch Hand destroyed 14% of South Vietnam's forests, including 50% of the mangrove forests.

Agent Orange accounted for approximately 60% of the herbicides used to destroy forests and crops. It was a mixture of the herbicides 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, and also contained dioxin generated during formulation of 2,4,5-T. While the two herbicides break down in the environment rather quickly, dioxin is a highly persistent compound that remains in the environment for decades and can cause cancer, birth defects, and other health and developmental problems.

The Hatfield study, one of the most comprehensive conducted on Agent Orange to date, found high levels of dioxin in the blood of Vietnamese people born after the war, indicating that contaminants are being transferred through the food chain. High levels of dioxin were also found in fish and animal tissue.

The study did not determine the number of people affected, and the authors stated that epidemiological studies are needed to establish a direct link between Agent Orange and the high rate of birth deformities found among the populations studied.

The report recommended setting up a public health plan to ensure that people do not eat contaminated food; comprehensive studies to investigate the link between Agent Orange and health problems; international assistance to develop and implement a reforestation program; and a campaign to decontaminate affected lands.

Since the war, Vietnam has not asked for compensation, but according to Hatfield it needs international help to reclaim denuded forest lands. It also needs assistance to care for the 70,000 people who the government says have medical or physical problems caused by their or their parents' exposure to Agent Orange.

Effects of Agent Orange on US veterans who were in Vietnam has also been studied. However, according to a six-month investigation by the San Diego Union-Tribune, the US Air Force's US$200 million study, which began in 1979 and ends in 2006, is so flawed that it might be useless. After interviewing military scientists and reviewing meeting transcripts, government reports and internal memos, the newspaper identified the following problems with the study:

  • two reports revealing serious birth defects among children of veterans exposed to Agent Orange were withheld for years;

  • a report stating concerns about cancer and birth defects was altered, making the risks appear less serious;

  • the government ignored a National Academy of Sciences recommendation that the study be conducted by scientists outside the military;

  • high ranking air force officers interfered with the study's data analysis undermining its scientific integrity.

The San Diego Union-Tribune quoted one of the scientists, who designed the study but was later removed from the investigation, as saying the study was manipulated to downplay the health problems of Vietnam veterans. The newspaper reports that the study's findings to date have been a key factor in denying compensation to Vietnam veterans who have illnesses they claim are related to Agent Orange exposure.

[Abridged from Pesticide Action Network North America Updates Service, on the web at <http://www.panna.org/panna/>.]

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