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THE WORLD | Personal Perspective

A Chance to Put the Vietnam War Behind Us

November 12, 2000|James Caccavo | Jim Caccavo worked in Vietnam from 1968-1970 for the American Red Cross and Newsweek magazine. He continues to serve as a volunteer for the Red Cross in the United States and Vietnam

Nguyen Thi Hoang Lang, or "Be Ba," is 10 years old and already a survivor of cancer. I first met her in 1992 in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), when she was 2 years old and had bright shinning eyes. When I saw her again in 1994, she had lost her right eye to cancer at the age of 3. Since then, cerebral palsy has warped and deformed her limbs. It is questionable whether the dioxin in Agent Orange is responsible for her cerebral palsy, but it is highly probable that the tumor that took her right eye was caused by the residual of the defoliant sprayed over areas of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Be Ba and other Vietnamese children--and the offspring of affected U.S. veterans--are the most innocent of the innocent of a war that still affects us.

Fortunately, there are developments that may ease the suffering of future generations. The American Red Cross is exploring the possibility of a partnership with the Vietnam Red Cross to support a program providing assistance to disabled Vietnamese, including cases that may have resulted from exposure to Agent Orange. Similarly, the U.S. government is engaged in talks with Vietnam to start a joint research project on the health and ecological effects of dioxins.

Between 1962 and 1971, the United States sprayed some 19 million gallons of herbicide, more than 10 million of which was Agent Orange, over much of South Vietnam, often in multiple sprayings. It ceased spraying the defoliant when reports from the sprayed areas indicated a dramatic increase in miscarriages, cancer and birth defects among the inhabitants, and public pressure mounted. Chemicals found in Agent Orange--2,4-D and 2,4,5-T compounds--were already banned in the United States, except for carefully controlled use on non-cropland.

It had been believed that the chemicals in the soil and food chain would deteriorate over time, but Dr. Arnold Schecter of the University of Texas, who has been studying the problem since 1981, has concluded, along with the Hatfield Consultants Ltd. of Canada, that Agent Orange has contaminated the soil and food chain in the sprayed areas of South Vietnam. (In June of this year, the Environmental Protection Agency declared for the first time that dioxin is a carcinogen).

From 1968 to 1970, I traveled more than 20,000 miles through South Vietnam's war zones. I visited every major U.S. military evacuation, field and surgical hospital, as well as Vietnamese provincial hospitals and orphanages, sometimes twice, documenting the efforts of the American Red Cross to alleviate human suffering. I occasionally saw birth malformations in children and cancer in older Vietnamese.

Twenty-one years later, I returned to Vietnam and made subsequent trips in 1994-96 and last year, to document suspected Agent Orange cases for the Vietnam Red Cross. It was no longer a war story, but an environmental one and, in many ways, sadder. In Vietnam's hospitals and orphanages, I saw young people with cancer, children with birth deformities and mental disabilities and other illnesses. This generation's wounds were inherited from exposed parents and from toxins in what had once been a clean and virgin environment.

The U.S. government has implied that if there were a true epidemic in Vietnam caused exclusively by Agent Orange, all the people in the sprayed areas, Vietnamese and American veterans, would be afflicted with the same ailments. In fact, spina bifida, mental retardation, congenital birth defects and cancer have occurred in nearly a half-million Vietnamese children of sprayed parents. Children of affected U.S. veterans have similar ailments, though on a much lower scale.

But differences in individual genetics, according to Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, explain why some individuals develop cancer when exposed to environmental agents and others do not. In the case of the Vietnamese, there was no evidence of dioxin in their rural environment before the war. Then they were suddenly exposed to a high concentration of it. Americans, by contrast, have dioxin present in their bodies, but the exposure has been more gradual. The average TCDD (dioxin) levels in human fat tissue in the United States is 7.2, while in the sprayed areas of Vietnam, the average level is an astounding 19.24.

On my last trip to Vietnam, Dr. Nguyen Thi Hoi, vice president of the Vietnam Red Cross, told me that Vietnamese from the sprayed areas of South Vietnam carry a social stigma similar to that of the Japanese who survived Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Like the Japanese, these Vietnamese are considered risky potential spouses because of a fear of birth defects in their offspring.

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