Weapons of mass destruction: The case of Agent Orange

At the World Social Forum in Mumbai, India, this January, victims of Agent Orange, which the U.S. military sprayed over 12 percent of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, gave moving testimony of the continuing price Vietnam is paying in human and financial terms, nearly 30 years after the war ended.

“Bush could not find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,” said Tran Dac Loi, leader of the Vietnamese delegation, “but there is a truth that the U.S. government has tried to hide for 30 years – the U.S. use of chemical weapons in Vietnam. We are presenting this story here for the first time.”

The event was sponsored by the newly formed Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin. The association is launching what it hopes will be an international campaign pressing the U.S. government and corporations that manufactured Agent Orange to compensate the victims.

On Jan. 30, in the first lawsuit of its kind, three Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange filed suit in U.S. federal court in Brooklyn, N.Y., against U.S. chemical companies, including Monsanto and Dow Chemical.

Tran Van Thu, secretary of the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin, said, “We are demanding compensation from more than 20 American companies for the health problems caused by America’s use of Agent Orange.”

– Susan Webb



From testimony at the World Social Forum, Mumbai, India, Jan. 18, 2004.

I am going to present to you the terrors of the chemical warfare that took place in our country over 30 years ago. Many of you have heard of the negative effects of Agent Orange (AO), but I don’t think you can imagine the scale and seriousness of the consequences of this terrible chemical. The war in our country ended but its heavy and lasting consequences still remain.

I am a doctor. Since 1972, I’ve been working at the Medical University of Hanoi. Apart from my responsibilities as a professor, I study the effects of AO/dioxin on people exposed to this toxic chemical. I also review results of studies conducted by my colleagues on its effects on the environment as well as on humans.





History of AO/dioxin

Dioxin is the most toxic and most durable chemical mankind has developed so far. Its half-life is very long. The scientific community has agreed that dioxin causes cancers, terrible deformities, birth defects and many other ailments.

In 1966, 29 American scientists protested the use of the AO/dioxin herbicide by the U.S. in Vietnam because AO couldn’t distinguish enemy solders from innocent people. They called for the U.S. Army to study the short- and long-term effects of the chemicals used in Vietnam. Over 5,000 American scientists asked President Johnson to stop using herbicides in Vietnam. Nevertheless, the chemicals continued to be used there.

At the beginning of the 1970s, the Herbicide Assessment Commission (HAC) – a scientific body – sent a group of experts to Vietnam to investigate the effects of the herbicides, especially AO/dioxin, on the environment and humans. After the trip, they asked the U.S. government to stop the use of the herbicides in Vietnam because these chemicals destroyed mangrove forests and caused miscarriages and birth defects. The culprit was the dioxin contained in AO. This conclusion conformed with the results of experiments on animals. It means that the U.S. was quite aware of the negative effects of the herbicides, AO in particular, on the environment and humans. At the beginning of 1970, 2,4,5-T (a key AO ingredient) was banned for use in agriculture in the U.S. because it could cause cancers, but the U.S. did not stop using it in Vietnam until 1971, and it allowed the South Vietnamese army to continue to use it until the end of the war, April 30, 1975.





The fate of U.S. veterans

[Most] American soldiers’ tour of duty in Vietnam was only one year. But after their return they suffered many serious diseases like cancer, liver disease, or birth defects among their children. Vietnam veterans began to suspect a linkage between the herbicides and the illnesses they and their children were experiencing. Paul Reutershan died of cancer at the age of 28. Before his death he said, “I died in Vietnam, but I didn’t even know it.” He told how as a helicopter squadron commander he flew in clouds of herbicides sprayed by C-123 aircraft. He noted that trees lost their leaves and mangrove forests changed their color from green to brown and died. But he didn’t worry about his health because he thought that the herbicides didn’t affect humans and animals. He was the first to sue Dow Chemical, Monsanto, Diamond Shamrock – the companies that produced most of the AO/dioxin – in U.S. court. Reutershan founded Agent Orange Victims International.

Vietnam Veterans of America, based on research findings of the National Academy of Sciences, asked for compensation for Vietnam veterans exposed to AO in Vietnam. Once it learned of the lasting effects of AO, VVA decided to continue its work in this area. Veterans of the Republic of Korea and Australia followed by suing their respective governments. Recently, 39 years after being exposed to AO, more New Zealand veterans began to suffer from AO-related diseases, bringing the total number of New Zealand AO victims up to 356.

HAC member Prof. A. Westing estimated that 170 kg of dioxin had been sprayed over 12 percent of the surface of South Vietnam. In April 2003, American scientists reported in the journal Nature that 366 kg of dioxin had been sprayed. Nobody knows the exact quantity except the U.S. Defense Department.

Vietnamese and other scientists say there are at least 3 million AO victims. Incomplete Vietnamese government statistics show that of 1.2 million disabled children, about 150,000 are AO-related. They suffer from brain paralysis, retardation, deformity and other problems.

Shortly after the war, levels of dioxin in the environment, in certain foods and in human blood, fat, milk and sperm in the AO-sprayed regions were very high. As early as 1970, members of the HAC delegation analyzed samples of milk taken in Can Gio, Ho Chi Minh City, and Tan Uyen. The level of dioxin was extremely high among the people exposed, higher than in victims of chemical factory explosions. Now, dioxin levels in humans and the environment in the sprayed regions of South Vietnam have decreased to the allowable levels applied in the developed countries since 1985. But the effects of dioxin on the next generations didn’t diminish at all.

The Vietnamese people were exposed to AO for a longer duration than U.S. soldiers. Some areas were repeatedly sprayed. For that reason the diseases of the Vietnamese exposed to dioxin through skin contact, respiration and digestion are very severe. The people in the contaminated areas, my colleagues and I ... really did not pay enough attention to the transient symptoms such as eye irritation, bronchitis, burning and edema. We continued to drink water in the contaminated areas. In the forests we paid attention only to diseases like malaria. We had no idea about the effects of AO/dioxin.

Later, once I had suffered from consecutive miscarriages, I discovered that dioxin contained in AO was the culprit behind many dangerous diseases – cancers, liver diseases, neuropsychological diseases, immunodeficiences, endocrine disorders, and birth defects in particular.

There are so many tragic situations in our country. There are children born without arms or legs or a head. There are also those who had one head but two faces. Most died just after birth. There are a great number of children suffering cerebral palsy and mental retardation throughout the north as well as the south of Vietnam because their fathers fought in contaminated regions. I have seen families with three or four blind children. There are many families like that. Many children have on their body black spots of skin with long hair. This disorder entered the genes of the mother or father or both and is transferred to the next generation.

The consequences of AO are an urgent problem in Vietnam today. From 1993 to 2000, scientists from Japan, the U.S. and Canada, in cooperation with Vietnamese scientists, found that the level of dioxin residue in the soil of former U.S. military bases and airfields is still very high. Among people who live close to Bien Hoa airfield, including children born after the war, the blood dioxin level is very high. Dioxin-related diseases are becoming more severe. In some cases they kill several generations of families. The effect of AO was, remains and will be in the long-term future a serious problem for our society.





Vietnam lacks resources

In 1980, the government of Vietnam established a committee to study the consequences of the chemicals used by the U.S. during the war. The government adopted measures to help the victims, including creation of the Fund for Protection of AO Victims. A number of international humanitarian organizations have provided aid. U.S. Vietnam veterans have returned to Vietnam to lighten the pain they caused our people. But Vietnam remains a poor country, facing many difficulties resulting from the war, and the assistance given to the victims by our country as well as by others is still far from what they need.

Therefore, we call on people all over the world to give a hand. We are waiting for the U.S. government and the chemical corporations to take responsibility for helping.

The U.S. government has demanded more scientific evidence of the effect of AO on humans before action can be taken. Is it not enough to have the results of studies conducted by scientists from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the Environmental Protection Agency, from Sweden, Germany, Holland and Italy and the International Red Cross, on consequences of chemical factory explosions or on the diseases that chemical workers suffer? Is it not enough when American Vietnam veterans have had to pay such a price in personal tragedies?

Please come to Vietnam to visit villages, to see the reality that the afflicted children are much more numerous in the contaminated areas than in those without contamination. Please come to visit the museum of still-born defective fetuses at Tu Du hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. This is concrete evidence of the effects of AO used by the U.S. in Vietnam.

AO victims in Vietnam live in poverty and with lifetime affliction. Many have died hopeless. In the name of the victims and all Vietnamese people, I ask people of all countries, and the U.S. government and chemical corporations in particular, to help our AO victims so that they can live and receive proper medical treatment and rehabilitation, and so that their future children will not be disabled. Please come to help us decontaminate the areas with high dioxin levels. Let’s unify in solidarity to prevent wars and do everything possible for a civilized and fair society.

(see related story below)



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‘We expect the U.S. to take responsibility’

Madame Nguyen Thi Binh was foreign minister of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam, and then became vice-president of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. These are excerpts from her remarks at the inauguration ceremony of the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange, January 2004, in Vietnam.

Nearly 30 years after the war, Vietnam has made significant gains. For many Vietnamese people, the war remains only in their memories. But many others, especially in rural areas in the South and some northern provinces, are still severely burdened with the war’s legacies. I am talking about over 3 million victims of Agent Orange (AO), the hundreds of thousands of them who have passed away, the millions living in illness and poverty, and their offspring with various deformities due to the legacy of Agent Orange.

The case of Agent Orange with dioxin – the most toxic chemical – has been studied since the early 1960s and its harmful effects have been affirmed. Not only the Vietnamese, but also a number of Vietnam veterans of the U.S., South Korea, New Zealand and Australia who participated in the war in Vietnam from 1961 to 1971, are victims of this toxic chemical. Addressing the consequences of AO is not only a burning but also a prolonged issue that requires international cooperation and support.

The Vietnamese government provides monthly subsidies for the victims. The Vietnam Fund for Protection of AO Victims was created in the Vietnam Red Cross. To date, the fund has established 57 branches at provincial level and has received remarkable assistance from many domestic and foreign organizations and individuals. A number of U.S. veterans have returned to Vietnam to contribute to easing the suffering of the victims. On behalf of the people of Vietnam and the victims, I would like to express our sincere gratitude for their precious support.

Our assistance, however, is still very far from meeting the needs of the victims. In recent years, we have seen the third generation of victims of AO born with birth defects due to the long-lasting effects of AO. Overcoming the consequences of AO is a more sophisticated and prolonged problem than we thought. I have visited many victims’ families and children suffering birth defects. The parents are most worried about the future of their children, about who will look after the unfortunate children when they have passed.

We – victims of AO, veterans, scientists and social activists who share the common goal of overcoming the consequences of Agent Orange – have established the Association for Victims of Agent Orange. The association represents the victims, and brings the victims and other people together to overcome the severe burden and consequences of Agent Orange.

We hope to receive active support from all Vietnamese people, governments, NGOs and people around the world. We are expecting the U.S. government and the companies who produced AO to take responsibility, morally and financially, to actively contribute to overcoming the war’s consequences.

– Madam Nguyen Thi Binh