February 1999/March 1999
Agent Orange/Dioxin Committee Report
Progress In Vietnam
By Paul Sutton, Vice-Chair
I traveled to Hanoi on January 3, joining VVA's Veterans Initiative delegation.
The purpose of the trip was to determine the status of the birth defect
study undertaken by the Veterans Association of Vietnam (VAVN) and to contribute
$500 to VAVN for the survey of its 1.4 million members. This endeavor
is a continuation of the veteran-to-veteran effort VVA began in Vietnam
in May 1994.
On January 4, the VVA delegation visited a Peace Village near Hanoi
built in 1997 by the German government. The tour was hosted by Nguyen Khai
Hung, the facility director. Lt.Gen. Vu Xuan Vinh, Col. Thinh, Ho
Xuan Dich of the VAVN, and Dr. Nguyen Tuan Anh of the 10-80 Committee also
attended. VVA participants were Tom Corey, Janet Alheit, Bill Duker, Bob
Necci, Bob Maras, Jack Thomas, and myself. The village provides a variety
of therapies for children with physical and psychological birth defects
and for Vietnamese veterans with medical and psychological difficulties
believed to stem from their exposures to herbicides.
We saw more than two dozen children who had a variety of minor physical
birth defects and who also were profoundly mentally retarded. All are offspring
of veterans who served in the war. The children receive physical therapy,
as well as speech therapy and help in raising them to a level where they
later can function in sheltered workshops. Very few ever will rejoin their
families because of the families' poverty.
We met with fifteen veterans who are experiencing memory loss and other
psychological disabilities believed to be related to their exposure to
Agent Orange. We also saw what we believed was significant evidence of
PTSD among these veterans. Several showed us their severe skin problems
and limb atrophy. Several have fathered multiple birth-defect children.
They had been exposed to herbicides for between four and seven years.
Director Hung and the VAVN representatives hosted a press conference
attended by Paul Alexander of the Associated Press, Andy Soloman of Reuters,
and a reporter and photographer from the Peoples Army Times. The
press pool provided information to all of Vietnam's newspapers.
Gen. Vinh said he looked forward to a cooperative and productive relationship
between VAVN and VVA that would lead to a better life for his people and
for Americans. Vinh said that the VAVN and several Vietnamese governmental
agencies had begun to coordinate studies, the first of which would be completed
during 1999. He also said that humanitarian efforts are underway. He emphasized
that medical care for his people needs to be the highest priority, and
he encouraged a close working relationship between VVA's Agent Orange/Dioxin
Committee and VAVN's 10-80 Committee. He said that his people were deeply
appreciative of VVA's efforts to see that legislation is introduced in
Congress to appropriate $1.5 million to fund research in Vietnam that will
benefit all exposure victims.
Tom Corey responded that it was VVA's hope that the Vietnamese desire
for a better life for their people could be realized, and that answers
to the many questions about exposure to Agent Orange during the war finally
could be answered. Gen. Vinh said that the Vietnamese believe that more
than 100,000 children suffer from birth defects and more than two million
Vietnamese veterans have physical and psychological problems related to
Agent Orange exposure.
On January 6, accompanied by Bui Van Nghi of the Vietnam/USA Society,
I met with Dr. Hoang Dinh Cau and Dr. Anh of the 10-80 Committee at the
Hanoi Medical School. During the morning's discussion, we touched on several
issues relating to the possibility of U.S. government-funded research in
Vietnam. The Vietnamese said they would welcome any American assistance.
The Vietnamese said that the information requested in the birth-defects
questionnaire provided to the VAVN is being gathered in the clinics and
the peace villages that the committee oversees. The committee and the government
take the view that these peace villages are the answer' to treating the
victims of Agent Orange.
The committee's progress, we were told, has been hampered by inadequate
funding and scientific resources. We discussed the status of congressional
legislation that would appropriate $1.5 million for preliminary research.
Dr. Cau said that he would like to begin working on cooperative agreements
now, even before any congressional approvals are realized.
The Vietnamese assured me that governmental clearances for their use
of surplus or outdated American medical equipment would not be difficult
to procure. We also discussed the donation of electrical equipment.
They told me they use a transformer that converts 110v output to 220v,
thereby eliminating equipment incompatibilities.
We discussed the relationship between the committee and the Ministry
of Science, Technology, and Environment (MoSTE), the environment-research
agency that the committee reports to. Dr. Cau said that the results of
their research could be made available to VVA and the U.S. government.
Following the formal meeting, the committee told us that their interpretation
of Pentagon data found that a total of 28 million gallons of herbicides
were sprayed in Vietnam between 1962 and 1971.
That study indicates that the parts per trillion (ppt) dioxin levels
in the soil are seven times the background levels. In Vietnamese males
born before the war, the dioxin level in their human tissue samples is
28 ppt. In males born since the war's end, the dioxin levels are 24 ppt.
(The human body eliminates one-half of its dioxin level every 7.1 years.)
Soil samples taken from areas surrounding major base camps in 1997 contained
61 ppt. In sprayed areas, the levels were 32 ppt.
That evening, I discussed Agent Orange with Paul Berg, First Secretary
at the U.S. Embassy. Berg said that, as a part of the agreement between
our government and Vietnam concerning normalizing relations, the Vietnamese
agreed not to demand reparations for damages caused by herbicides. However,
he said, the issue of Agent Orange's victims comes up at every meeting
he attends with officials in the provinces.
On Thursday afternoon, January 7, again accompanied by Bui Van Nghi,
I met with Col. Trinh and Ho Xuan Dich of the VAVN. We discussed the ongoing
cooperation between VAVN and the 10-80 Committee. The VAVN contribution
to the effort has largely been outreach and coordination between the various
government agencies. They asked if VVA or other non-government organizations
would contribute to their new foundation, which was established to help
Agent Orange victims. The VAVN works closely with the Vietnam Red Cross
in providing medical care to the victims.
On January 8, Nghi and I met with Nguyen Hoa Binh and Le Bich Thuy of
MoSTE. I gave them an overview of the meetings that I had attended during
the past week, copies of documents we had distributed, and a summary of
the messages that had been passed along at each meeting. They expressed
their happiness at the possibility of $1.5 million in U.S. funding
and expressed willingness to work with Dr. Schecter.
They said that issues of concern or research proposals should be addressed
in writing to the minister well in advance of any research being initiated.
Since MoSTE is in charge of all research in Vietnam, and since the agency
coordinates research through the other ministries, a clear paper trail
must be initiated with them. Inquiries or requests to initiate research
should be sent to: Professor Dr. Chu Tuan Nha, Minister, The Ministry
of Science, Technology, and Environment, 39 Tran Hung Dao, Hanoi. The phone
number is: 84-4-825-2920; fax: 84-4-825-1730 or 84-4-825-2233.
At the conclusion of the meeting, I presented them with a VVA Agent
Orange flag, which they were pleased to accept.
Conclusions and Recommendations
It is essential that VVA maintain a strong, viable lobbying effort in
Congress on the critical issue of research in Vietnam. Since 1994, VVA
has been a leader in advocating for this research. For many years, it was
the only VSO urging this step.
The Agent Orange/Dioxin Committee, following its first trip to Vietnam
in February 1995, presented a draft Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for
discussion with the Veterans Association of Vietnam. This MOU, approved
by the VVA Board of Directors, advanced in-country research proposals that
were raised with the Vietnamese and accepted by the VAVN during a September
1995 delegation visit. This latest trip permitted VVA and the committee
to further the dialogue with the VAVN, the 10-80 Committee, and MoSTE.
The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi was surprisingly supportive. All of these contacts
will serve to better coordinate the research once it gets under way.
This work will continue the close working relationship between VVA
and the Vietnamese scientific community, and will pave the way for unhampered
research benefiting both nations. It also will develop a closer relationship
with the VAVN. The data-gathering phase of this survey should be completed
before the end of 1999.
As stipulated by the 1995 MOU, VVA and the VAVN agreed to gather
data on the numbers and types of birth defects experienced by children
born since the war's end. This is of particular importance because the
kinds of birth defects experienced by the Vietnamese today are nearly the
same as those experienced by the children of VVA members. It is expected
that finalization of the VAVN survey will take an additional six months.
The data should be correlated and interpreted by an unbiased, independent
third party with scientific expertise.
Together, the veterans of both countries will work with that third party
to develop a protocol that will compare exposed birth-defect children with
unexposed birth-defect children. The object will be to determine what exposure
to dioxin by parents in the world's most dioxin-exposed nation amounts
to in numbers and types of birth defects experienced by their children.
And, finally, we will develop a methodology to compare the data in the
United States about birth-defect children born to Vietnam veterans during
and following the war's end.
After data comparisons are complete, VVA can continue to press the legislative
agenda to seek relief for the parents of birth-defect children where at
least one of those parents is a Vietnam veteran whose exposure to dioxin
in Vietnam can be verified. This will place VVA in a better position to
press for the long-delayed National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
(NIEHS) research in Vietnam.
VVA must maintain its leadership role in insuring adequate funding of
objective scientific research in Vietnam on Agent Orange/dioxin. Valid
research seems even more attainable after these latest meetings and the
very real possibility of U.S-funded research in Vietnam. We will remain
in the vanguard of the search for the link between parental exposure and
birth-defect offspring. We now have the rare chance to resolve a tragically
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