Despite the US military's continued claims of the harmlessness of Agent Orange - the herbicide it used extensively during the Vietnam War - research done by the Vietnamese and Russians has proved otherwise. And as the toll of dying US veterans mounted, most members of the US Congress have become more sceptical of the military's claims.

By Sergei Blagov

April 1999

Moscow: As US-led forces step up their bombing of Yugoslavia to prevent a perceived humanitarian disaster in Kosovo, an almost forgotten humanitarian crisis half the world away remains unsettled by the Americans.

Yet sooner or later, the US military could face huge compensation claims from the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange, the wartime defoliant it sprayed in that Indochinese nation decades ago.

A national investigation into the effects of Agent Orange is underway in Vietnam, whose prime minister Phan Van Khai ordered it in April 1998.

A survey of Vietnamese combatants and civilians exposed to chemicals used by the US military - carried out by Vietnam's Ministry of Labour, War Invalids and Social Affairs - has sparked speculation that Hanoi was preparing to lodge an eventual compensation claim.

Though the matter of compensation has not formally been raised, the differences of opinion on the effects of Agent Orange continue, and attribution of responsibility remains elusive.

Just this month, US military researchers insisted again that exposure to high levels of dioxins, the toxic compounds found in Agent Orange, did not raise long-term cancer risks.

No 'significant increase' in cancer risk among veterans exposed to dioxin was found, concluded Dr Joel Michalek and the team at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Brooks Air Force Base, Texas.

In their study, published in the April issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology, the researchers examined cancer rates of more than 2,000 veterans exposed to dioxin during the Vietnam War 30 years ago.

But Vietnamese and some Russian researchers disagree.

'Anybody living for a decade in those areas in Vietnam where Agent Orange was sprayed, is destined to lose some 18 months of one's lifetime due to a variety of diseases,' according to Vladimir Rumak, Director of the Tropical Research Centre.

In fact, he says, the lifespans of affected people are likely to be some 10 years shorter than average - because the consequences of Agent Orange spraying can be associated with many diseases and reproductive abnormalities.

The Russo-Vietnamese Tropical Research Centre, based in Hanoi, has studied the long-term effects of Agent Orange spraying in Vietnam since 1988.

In 1961, US President John Kennedy ordered the use of defoliants to deny Communist forces food supplies and routes into South Vietnam. For the next 10 years, herbicides were massively sprayed throughout the countryside below the 17th parallel.

Under 'Ranch Hand Operation', the US army sprayed some 72 million litres of herbicides to clear campsites and defoliate forests to deny cover to the enemy.

Agent Orange was the herbicide used in greatest volume. An estimated 170 kilogrammes of dioxin was sprayed over 10% of South Vietnam's territory. More than two million hectares of inland mangrove forest and agricultural land were affected by the spraying, Vietnamese experts indicate.

But it was only in October 1980 that Vietnam created the National Committee for investigation of the consequences of the chemicals used during the Vietnam War.

Hoang Dinh Cau, head of what is commonly called the '10-80 Committee', has said Vietnam will need at least a century to overcome the consequences of Agent Orange spraying.

Its studies have shown high rates of reproductive abnormalities, such as miscarriages, premature and still births, in the sprayed areas.

An extended health-conditions survey among war veterans in Hanoi discovered a variety of dioxin-related diseases, including cancer, Le Thai Hang of the 10-80 Committee has reported.

Researchers have also reported increased rates of liver cancer and soft tissue sarcoma in those exposed to toxic chemicals during wartime, both Vietnamese and Russian experts say.

Yuri Prischepo, deputy head of the Moscow-based Tropical Committee of Russian Academy of Sciences, says his group studies human mutations and birth defects due to dioxin, 'somewhat overlooking cancer risks'. But the Tropical Research Centre has found significant health risks among Vietnamese exposed to dioxin, he adds.

In 1990, a panel of independent American scientists working with veterans' groups released research results concluding that Agent Orange can be associated with at least eight disease categories, including soft tissue cancer.

Originally, the US Congress tended to accept uncritically the military's claims that no harm was done by herbicide exposure. But as the toll of dying veterans mounted, most members of Congress have become more sceptical of such claims.

Since 1990, Vietnam veterans with non-Hodgkin lymphoma started getting compensation from the US government. Other conditions were later added to the list of those eligible for benefits.

Vietnam says as many as two million people were exposed to the toxic chemicals. It claims up to 50,000 deformed children have been born to parents exposed to the chemicals.

Hanoi has never formally requested compensation from the US, but the issue of reparations was discussed between then Communist Party General Secretary Do Muoi and visiting US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in June 1997.

Likewise, the question of compensation to civilian victims in Vietnam has yet to be raised, mostly due to the enormous scale of the problem. But for Vietnamese officials, an accounting of the legacy of the wartime spraying is needed.

If it ever comes to pass, the compensation and related health-care expenditures may amount to billions of dollars, but for now formal negotiations - let alone the solution - are a long way off. - Third World Network Features/IPS


About the writer: Sergei Blagov is a correspondent for Inter Press Service, with whose permission the above article is reprinted.