Legacy of Agent Orange Worsens..

Almost  30 years after the Vietnam war, the legacy of Agent Orange appears to be worsening.

It has been almost three decades since US planes stopped spraying Agent Orange in Vietnam, some local people have blood dioxin levels more than 100 times higher than normal. In fact, the latest figures show levels are at their highest since 1973, say US scientists. Agent Orange was contaminated by TCDD, a particularly potent dioxin. Dioxins are classified as carcinogens. They also impair the immune system, increase cases of spontaneous abortion, and reduce IQ in children.

Arnold Schecter of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre says TCDD that seeped into soil and river beds is becoming concentrated in fish and water. In some parts of Vietnam, it is accumulating in children born after the end of the war.

"There is no doubt that Agent Orange contamination in Vietnam is not part of history - it's happening now," Schecter told New Scientist. Anywhere between several hundred thousand and several million Vietnamese could be living in contamination hotspots, he says.

Chemical Dump

Schecter's team analyzed blood samples from people living in Bien Hoa in South Vietnam. Bien Hoa was used as an air force base and chemical dump by the US during the war. Schecter found TCDD levels up to 135 times higher than those in samples taken from people in Hanoi, where Agent Orange was never used. Families with the highest blood TCDD levels ate the most fish, he says. The health implications for these people are not clear. Vietnamese studies have found increased rates of cancer and congenital malformations in dioxin hotspots, but international teams claim these studies are inconclusive, says Schecter.

  A clean-up operation could take ten years. "And there is the question of whether any clean-up would mobilize, or get rid of the dioxins," he says, but at-risk people could be provided with "clean" food and water.

Compensation question

US Vietnam veterans receive compensation for health problems related to Agent Orange exposure. Schecter says the US government has pledged to contribute to humanitarian projects in Vietnam. But it will not officially provide aid to clean up Agent Orange, or to compensate Vietnamese people.

However, the US has pledged some funds for Agent Orange research in Vietnam. "For the first time this year, the US Congress put in its budget just under $1 million for joint US and Vietnamese research into Agent Orange in Vietnam. But this is being held up by the debate between the two governments on linking humanitarian assistance to Agent Orange public health issues," says Schecter.

About 18 million gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed in southern Vietnam during the war. The herbicide stripped trees of foliage, and helped the US military locate Vietnamese soldiers on the ground.

(New Scientist Online News; Emma Young; 1841 GMT, 17 May 2001)

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