VIETNAM: Agent Orange victims sue US chemical companies


Michael Karadjis

Three Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange — the herbicide sprayed over Vietnam by the US military during its war against Vietnam in the 1960s and '70s — are suing more than 20 US chemical companies for compensation.

The three victims — Nguyen Thi Phi Phi, Duong Quynh Hoa and Nguyen Van Quy — and the recently established Vietnam Association for Agent Orange Victims, filed the suit on January 30 with a US federal court in New York. They are seeking compensation from firms which produced the chemical warfare agent, including Monsanto and Dow Chemicals.

The US government sprayed 72 million litres of Agent Orange and other deadly defoliants on Vietnamese forests and farms in a campaign known as Operation Ranch Hand. This was the longest and most destructive chemical war in history. Washington's goal in using Agent Orange was to destroy the jungle cover that Vietnamese resistance fighters used to move around the country and to destroy the crops which fed the guerrillas.

The number of surviving victims of Washington's use of defoliants is estimated to be in the millions. The legacy lives on in children and grandchildren in the form of horrific birth defects. The deadly chemical dioxin present in the defoliants is passed on through blood and breast milk. The water and soil of significant parts of southern Vietnam remain contaminated, spreading cancer and other deadly diseases to residents who drink the water or eat the food grown there.

The Second International Conference on Herbicides in War held in Hanoi in 1993 reported that health problems in humans resulting from exposure to the deadly chemical dioxin in Agent Orange included parentally transmitted diseases, reproductive disorders including birth defects, spontaneous abortion, trophoblastic diseases, cancer and disturbances of the central and peripheral nervous system.

Officially, the US government is "still researching" whether its chemical weapons are responsible for the enormous plague of cancers, deadly diseases and birth deformities present on a massive scale in the regions most affected by the defoliation operations it conducted.

One study found that levels of dioxin in fatty tissues among people living in affected southern regions of Vietnam ranged between 14.7 and 103 parts per trillion, compared to 0.6 parts among those in the north. Another found that 5% of Vietnamese war veterans who had been active in heavily affected areas fathered children with birth defects, compared to only 1% among veterans who had remained in northern Vietnam.

Such "circumstantial" evidence is not enough for the US government, which demands "sound scientific" evidence of a causal connection between defoliants and birth defects. However, Washington has done nothing to help gather such evidence.

Meanwhile, testing is enormously expensive for a poor country like Vietnam. To test a single tissue or soil sample for the presence of dioxin costs around US$1000, and testing just one area would require hundreds or thousands of samples. A thousand dollars for one test is about 100 times the monthly pension the Vietnamese government is able to provide disabled veterans.

The hypocrisy of Washington's position is revealed by the fact that, following several decades of research and campaigning by US veterans' organisations, the US government agreed to compensation for thousands of US vets for diseases such as cancers, sarcomas, skin diseases, Hodgkin's disease and others.

The Vietnamese victims' lawsuit is based on a US federal law allowing foreigners to seek damages for violations of international law, and common laws concerning a company's responsibility for its products.

Other investigations have been underway for some time regarding the possibilities of international legal action against the US government. The UN General Assembly in 1969 declared that the Geneva Protocols outlawing the use of chemical and biological weapons did apply to herbicides, but it was not until April 1975 that the US became a party to this protocol.

In the meantime, the Vietnamese government does what it can to help Agent Orange victims, but most still live in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. A country with a GDP per capita of $410 per annum has to try to provide care for an estimated 5-7 million people living with disabilities, many of them war-related.

Donations to aid Vietnam's Agent Orange victims can be made to the National Fund for Vietnamese Children (35 Tran Phu Street, Hanoi, Vietnam, e-mail: <>. Account: Vietcombank, 198 Tran Quang Khai Street, Hanoi, Vietnam) or to the Agent Orange Victims Fund (82 Nguyen Du Street, Hanoi, Vietnam. Account: Vietcombank, 23 Phan Chu Trinh Street, Hanoi, Vietnam).

From Green Left Weekly, February 18, 2004.
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