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Vietnam Study Finds Dioxin in Food Chain

Asia: Agent Orange defoliant used by U.S. in war has created environmental and health problems, firm reports.

October 31, 1998|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HANOI — Agent Orange sprayed by the United States during the Vietnam War has contaminated the country's food chain, creating serious environmental and health problems that demand urgent international attention, a Canadian consulting firm reported Friday.

"If such data were collected in most Western jurisdictions, based on similar sampling levels, major environmental cleanup and more extensive studies would be mandated and implemented," the report by Hatfield Consultants Ltd. said. "As Western-based scientists, we can hardly recommend less be done in Vietnam."

Hatfield spent five years researching the effects of the deforestation chemicals sprayed on Vietnam from 1962 to 1971. Its study is considered one of the most comprehensive done on Agent Orange.

Using research that ranged from satellite imagery to soil sampling, the firm found high levels of dioxin, an Agent Orange component, in the blood of Vietnamese born after the war, indicating that contaminants are being transferred through the food chain. Dioxin is also found in high levels in fish and animal tissue.

The study made no attempt to determine the number of people affected, and its authors were cautious about the politically charged relationship between Agent Orange and birth deformities, saying epidemiological investigations are needed to establish a direct link.

Like Agent Orange itself, the report is likely to be controversial and will be used by Vietnam to make its case that the country has a serious environmental and health problem that the world has ignored for a generation.

Hanoi has long contended that the 12 million gallons of chemicals the United States dumped on South Vietnam during Operation Ranch Hand caused immense harm. The chemicals destroyed 14% of South Vietnam's forests, according to official U.S. reports.

Vietnam has never asked for compensation but would like international help reclaiming denuded forest lands and caring for 70,000 people who it says have mental or physical disabilities because of their exposure--or that of their parents--to Agent Orange. Vietnam says half a million people have died or contracted serious illnesses over the years because of the spraying.

The U.S. has never taken a position on the effects of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese population. And no one in Washington appears eager to take on an issue from a war everyone wants to forget.

When questioned about the effects of the spraying operation, U.S. officials reply that more research is needed to prove any link to health problems.

Undeniably, though, the spraying of chemicals--which were designed to deny Communist troops camouflage, not to kill or maim--changed Vietnam's landscape.

Vast tracts of land once covered by jungles, particularly in Quang Tri province, stand today as expanses of scrub and wild grasses. Scientists say that, without human intervention, recovering the now-dead forests will take centuries.

Researchers have found Vietnam an ideal laboratory to study the effects of chemicals because it offers a controlled environment: South Vietnam was sprayed, North Vietnam was not.

Hatfield's study was concentrated in Aluoi Valley, an area near the Laotian border in central Vietnam. The region is populated by hill tribes whose members are subsistence farmers.

"Dioxin contamination related to Agent Orange was found in grass carp growing in fish ponds excavated out of the terrain in the vicinity of the former Aluoi Valley air base," Hatfield noted. "Levels found would trigger a consumption advisory process . . . possibly prohibitions against consumption if they were from a location in Canada or other Western jurisdictions."

The Hatfield report recommended setting up a public health plan to ensure that people do not eat contaminated food; comprehensive studies to investigate the link between Agent Orange and health problems; international assistance in a reforestation program; and a campaign to decontaminate affected lands.

The findings are available on the Internet at www.hatfieldgroup.com.

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