Agent Orange Still Hot in Vietnam
8:40 a.m. Jul. 12, 2000 PDT
Villagers living close to a former U.S. air base where there was a big
spillage of the defoliant Agent
Orange during the Vietnam War show elevated levels of dioxin contamination,
a leading researcher says.
Arnold Schecter, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of
Texas, said his findings, as well as
previous Canadian research, showed dioxin had found its way back into the
food chain in at least two Agent
Orange "hotspots" in Vietnam.
Schecter said he and Vietnamese scientists took blood samples last year
from 20 villagers living close to the
former air base of Bien Hoa, scene of an accidental spill of thousands of
gallons of Agent Orange in the late 1960s.
Analysis of the samples obtained this year showed 19 of the 20 had elevated
levels of dioxin.
"Nineteen out of 20 really surprised us," Schecter said in an interview in
Hanoi. "One woman had the highest level
seen in Vietnam since the last samples were taken during the war.
"That's a 135 percent increase above the level for non-exposed Hanoi
residents. It startled us. It startled my group. It's striking."
The Environmental Protection Agency recently issued a reassessment of
dioxin, concluding that it is a known
carcinogen that causes cancer in humans.
However, there was the possibility of the EPA findings being contested by
industry, including Agent Orange
manufacturers worried about potentially large damages settlements.
Litigation by industry meant similar conclusions by the Public Health
Service's National Toxicology Program were
not released, Schecter said.
Spraying of Agent Orange, used by the United States to deny jungle cover to
the North Vietnamese, ended in
Schecter said if researchers were better funded they could map out other
hotspots like Bien Hoa.
"I hope and expect from what I hear in Washington they will try to get U.S.
government funding for Agent Orange
research in Vietnam started this year," he said. "This ... is the last year
of the Clinton administration and we have
no idea what the next administration will want to do. It must be done now,
or it may never be done."
During a visit to Vietnam earlier this year, Defense Secretary William
Cohen called for cooperation in research into
the harmful effects of Agent Orange.
Schecter, a member of the U.S. Army Medical Corps in the Vietnam War who
has been researching Agent Orange
in Vietnam since 1984, said implications of such research extended beyond
Vietnam and U.S. veterans seeking
compensation for the effects of contamination, to cases like the recent
Belgian food scare.
"It will tell us how dioxin moves through the environment," he said. "Most
people thought the dioxin from Agent
Orange had just moved away, been washed away. Clearly, 30 years after the
spraying ended, it's not doing that
and it is being remobilized in certain hotspots and getting into people."
It could also show what levels of dioxins caused which health effects,
"Vietnam has the biggest dioxin contamination in the world and probably the
most men women and children
contaminated with dioxin. Unfortunately for Vietnam, it is probably the
best laboratory in the world to study the
effects of dioxin."
Schecter said that of those villagers contaminated near Bien Hoa, some were
old enough to have been exposed to
spraying during the war but others were born long after the spraying ended.
The highest levels of contamination were among heavy fish consumers,
specifically in a family that ate a lot of fish
from a stream on their property downstream from the air base.
"The spillage of Agent Orange at Bien Hoa air base probably got into a
waterway that goes nearby, probably
contaminated silt that probably contaminated fish," Schecter said.
"We know now that Agent Orange is a human carcinogen, we know it causes
endocrine disruption and we know it
causes certain types of damage to children if the mother has high enough
exposure," Schecter said.
Copyright 1999-2000 Reuters Limited.
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