Agent Orange still a silent killer

Thousands of people still struggle with the effects of dangerous levels of dioxin released by the US military in the Vietnam War. By Justin Frewen.

In 1975, after a 30 years struggle against a range of foreign forces, the victorious National Liberation Front of Vietnam forces entered Saigon, the capital of the South. For the first time since its occupation by France in the late 19th century, Việt Nam was independent and no longer subject to the dictates of external powers.

However, while the lengthy and costly conflicts which had resulted in the loss of 3 million Vietnamese lives were over, they left in their wake a legacy of debilitating obstacles in the way of the country’s future economic development.

(Picture: Protests in America after the Supreme Court ruled against Vietnamese and American victims of Agent Orange)

During the latter decade and a half of the war, Việt Nam was subjected to an aerial bombardment three to four times greater than the total tonnage released during WWII.

However, it was the use of chemical defoliants which had the greatest long-term detrimental impact on the country and its people. These chemicals were used by the US military to strip away the lush and abundant forests in the south and centre so the Vietnamese resistance could be better targeted. It was the combination of napalm used to kill trees and vegetation followed by Agent Orange to burn them, prior to their removal by bulldozers, which has had the greatest long term consequences.

Named after the orange strips on its container barrels, Agent Orange was a highly toxic chemical. Between 1962 and 1970, 1.4 billion hectares of land and forest - approximately 12 percent of Việt Nam’s total land area - were sprayed with 80 million litres of this chemical. As a result, 2.5 to 4.8 million people were exposed to the lethal effects of dioxin, an essential component of Agent Orange.

Despite their best efforts to protect themselves by covering their faces with towels drenched in water or even their own urine, many were unable to prevent their contamination from the spilling Agent Orange.

As it fell, the dioxin took root in the land and waters around, entering into the life cycles of the local plants, fish, animals and people. Furthermore, many barrels of dioxin remain buried in the ground and there were numerous accidental spillages.

One such spillage entailed the seepage of 22,000 litres of Agent Orange into a lake beside Biên Hòa town, home to 20,000 people. Tests have shown this area to be contaminated to a level 1,000 times that considered acceptable in the US.

Families with members disabled by exposure to Agent Orange exist in an extremely precarious economic situation. In a country which was virtually destroyed by war and further enfeebled by the post-war US-led embargo, it is exceedingly difficult to provide the required care and attention for disabled family members.

The 2002 documentary Battle’s Poison Cloud introduces us to several of these families. In one scene, we meet Nguyên Cảnh whose granddaughter, an Agent Orange victim, has virtually no control over her limbs. At every meal Cảnh must first chew her granddaughter’s food until it is sufficiently soft for her to simply swallow when placed in her mouth. Cảnh worries for her family’s future after her passing, as her granddaughter will have no one to look after her with her daughter-in-law having to work hard in the rice fields to provide for their family.

Research carried out by the US Institute of Medicine (IOM) in 1994 and 1996 described the presence of ten diseases potentially linked to Agent Orange. Four of these diseases had sufficient evidence while the remaining six bore limited evidence of an association between the current ailments and exposure to herbicides.

Based on these reports, President Clinton approved compensation for US personnel who had served in Việt Nam, as well as their children should they become afflicted by any of the diseases described in the Institute of Medicine’s reports. However, no mention was made of Vietnamese Agent Orange victims.

A 2003 IOM report emphasised the possibility of undertaking extensive epidemiological research to examine the connections between herbicide use in Việt Nam and the health of Vietnamese citizens and US veterans. However, IOM’s call to the US government to fund such studies proved unsuccessful.

In January 2004, a case was initiated in the New York courts by the Vietnam Association of Agent Orange/dioxin Victims and five individual victims to obtain compensation for the victims of Agent Orange. Their case was rejected in March 2005 as the judge ruled there was no prohibition on the use of herbicides in International Law. An appeal launched on 30 September 2005 was also rejected.

In the meantime, thousands of people disabled by Agent Orange continue to struggle with their disabilities without the economic resources they need to make their lives more bearable. However, they are not alone in their efforts as organisations located in Việt Nam, the US, UK and many other countries, are also working to obtain justice for the victims of Agent Orange.

If you might be interested in finding out more about Agent Orange, its consequences and the ongoing efforts to obtain redress for its victims as well as signing the petition in support of Agent Orange victims, please visit the following website for further information.