Friday, October 20, 2006

Vietnam, U.S. set new tone on
dioxin war legacy

By Grant McCool

Reuters
Tuesday, October 3, 2006; 8:09 AM

BIEN HOA, Vietnam (Reuters) - Doctors warn people living near the Bien Hoa military airport not to drink the water, eat the fish or grow fruit and vegetables because of wartime dioxin poisoning.

Brain-damaged babies and children with shortened limbs and other physical deformities are still being brought to hospitals for specialized care, four decades after the United States sprayed Vietnam with the highly toxic defoliant.

In recent months, Vietnam and the United States have started to overcome years of frustration in both governments about how to deal with environmental and health effects of the poison code-named "agent orange."

Americans and Vietnamese say they are perhaps just months from planning environmental clean-up and containment of dioxin, beginning at the former U.S. air base in the central city of Danang.

"Assisting Vietnam with this issue will help clear the conscience of the U.S. government," said Le Ke Son, director of "The Committee 33" working on impacts of an estimated 70 million litres of toxic chemicals used from 1961 to 1971 by the U.S. military and the South Vietnam government it supported.

The war ended on April 30, 1975......Hanoi and Washington restored diplomatic ties in 1995 and they are now cementing a friendship founded on growing trade and business ties as Vietnam introduces market reforms.

But the consequences of the toxic war remain a painful sore in the relationship that both governments and non-governmental organizations dearly wish to repair.

"There has been a lot of work on the issue," said Michael Marine, U.S. ambassador to Hanoi . "The question is very complex. What you do is in part driven by how you intend to use the site, the land, the cost for the clean-up."

HOT SPOTS

Scientists identify coastal Danang , Vietnam 's fourth largest city with about 1 million people, the south-central town of Phu Cat in Binh Dinh province and Bien Hoa in the southern province of Dong Nai as "hot spots," wartime bases where the chemicals were stored and spilled.

Bien Hoa is a bustling city of 500,000 people about 40 km (25 miles) north of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam 's industrial heart. It is a typical Vietnamese city, teeming with motorbikes, construction sites and Internet cafes alongside displays of communist hammer and sickle symbols and party slogans. But its military airport and surrounding lakes, ponds and land are toxic. The Vietnam military plans to clean up the site.

A study by Vietnamese and Canadian scientists of Hatfield environmental consultants in West Vancouver, British Columbia, measured dioxin levels in the soil that are hundreds of times higher than is acceptable in other countries.

"My dream is to conclude work on these hot spots in the next five years," said Son, a scientist at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment who serves on a joint Vietnam-U.S. panel of technical experts who met for the first time in June.

Washington has ruled out paying compensation but is willing to share technical advice with Vietnamese counterparts.

The non-governmental Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation provides expertise and the Ford Foundation, a U.S. philanthropic group, has made grants for environmental and health research.
"Part of the reason we are making these grants is so that they can develop a more accurate view of the nature of the threat," says Charles Bailey, Ford Foundation representative in Vietnam .

BUSH VISIT

The subject could come up when President Bush visits in November for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum summit.

But the issue is also legally sensitive because a Vietnamese victims group is suing 37 American chemical companies in a U.S. federal court. The class action lawsuit was thrown out in March 2005 and the group is appealing the ruling.

Americans, Australians, New Zealanders and South Koreans who served in the war were also exposed to dioxin. They have all had some success in obtaining services and care for themselves.

It is only with increasing economic prosperity that poor, under-developed Vietnam has sought to improve assistance to Vietnamese victims and to try to find out how many there are.

Children of people exposed to dioxin during the war have also been sickened or deformed, but researchers say no one can yet accurately quantify the total number of victims. The National Academy of Sciences in the United States found that up to 4.8 million people "would have been present" during spraying.

In another recent development, the United Nations has become involved for the first time.

The United Nations Development Programme in Hanoi proposes the establishment of a transparently governed trust fund where international donors, companies and governments could put money for dioxin-related environmental and health work.

"The stars really are aligned. I think we are getting there," says Koos Neefjes, senior advisor at UNDP in Vietnam .

DOCTORS AND VICTIMS

The doctors who work daily with the victims or live with environmental and health impacts welcome the progress being made toward reducing contamination and eventually ridding the country of dioxin.

"I don't hold any grudges or anger and I am of a view of letting the past go and if we can do something now then we should do what we can to help," said Nguyen Thi Phuong Tan, head of the " Peace Village " for the disabled in Ho Chi Minh City , one of 12 nationwide.

Every day, Tan and her staff of doctors and nurses provide care to 339 patients from infancy to 25 years old. They include children with enlarged heads or shortened limbs and one with skin covering the face where there should be eyes.

Some of the patients lie in a vegetative state in cots, others are teenagers reading and writing and wrestling playfully with students who come to visit the hospital.

The doctor's "let bygones be bygones" attitude is typical of Vietnamese, who are known for being pragmatic.

Even in Bien Hoa, where toxicity levels are highest and health authorities say there are 465 people with dioxin-related disabilities or illnesses such as cancer, a doctor speaks in a matter-of-fact way about the calamity.

"We have a few solutions, including warning residents against using the water from ponds and lakes near the airport," said Tu Thanh Chuong, director of Dong Nai province health department.

"We told people not to eat fish from this area and we banned the production of fruit and vegetables in the contaminated land."


(Additional reporting by Nguyen Nhat Lam and Nguyen Van Vinh)
© 2006 Reuters


AGENT ORANGE COURT CASE
IN NEW YORK

Letter from Len Aldis
Secretary Britain-Vietnam Friendship Society


3rd October 2006

The Honourable Judges of the
United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

40 Centre Street
New York, New York 10007USA

Ref: Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin
Et al. V. Dow Chemical Co., et al,. Docket No 05-1953-cv

Your Honours,

I am neither a scientist, nor a man of medicine. I do not have any medical experience or knowledge at all but write to you as a person who has travelled to Vietnam on many occasions, and visited many of its provinces. It is because of my visits and what I have seen that I write and ask to make a submission to the Court in favour of the plaintiffs in the appeal before you.

One of the weapons used by American forces in the war on Vietnam was chemicals. It has been established from research carried out by a team from Columbia University led by Jeanne Mager Stellman and Steven D. Stellman - published in Nature Magazine of April 2003 – of the logbooks of the pilots that 82 million litres of chemicals were sprayed over a vast area of South Vietnam. Many scientists from a number of countries have also carried out research on the effects of the use of these chemicals.

However, I wish to draw the attention of the Court to the visits I have made to Vietnam, the first in 1989, and each year since. My travels within the country have taken me to many of the provinces north, south, east and west. In the seventeen years I have been able to meet and speak to many hundreds of people, young and elderly, suffering from various illnesses and disabilities as a result of the chemicals. I have met the people affected at clinics, in schools, hospitals and in their homes. In many cases it has not been easy for me to see the terrible disabilities suffered by young adults, teenagers, and in particular children.

You will know that the War on Vietnam ended in 1975, but the use of the chemicals that included Agent Orange/Dioxin over a period from 1961 – 1972 has affected millions, many thousands of whom were born long after the war ended.

To see, as I have, seen a child of six years born with no eyes, slowly making his way around a room by touch. A young girl of eight, her body twisted by Spina Bifida, sitting at her school desk writing her times table. Youngsters minus limbs, be they an arm or a leg, for some minus either legs, or both arms. Hundreds of thousands died in the womb of their mothers, some shortly after their birth. These too I have seen in the special room at Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City.

Born in 1930, I know of no war in my lifetime that has left such a legacy to those born after its end.

International scientists have carried out tests, have investigated the soil and forests on which the chemical were used. You will no doubt have seen the evidence presented to you from people on whom the chemical was sprayed, and are ill or disabled, or from young adults whose parents served in the Vietnamese forces during the war and were born with disabilities.

I should point out that due to the nature and severity of their illnesses and/or disabilities many of the Vietnamese affected by the chemicals would not able to travel even within their own town, city, country, let alone travel to New York to present their case before you. Documentary films have been produced showing many of these tragic victims. I would hope that the Court before coming to its decision would have seen these.

Your Honours, you will be aware that members of the U.S. forces who served in Vietnam have also been affected by the same illnesses and disabilities transmitted to their children as have occurred on the Vietnamese. Further, in a lawsuit brought by these veterans in 1984 against some of the same companies before you in this appeal, you will know that it was settled out of court for a sum of $184m.

Veterans from Australia and New Zealand are suffering from the effects of the chemicals. In a settlement announced by a high Court in South Korea, the chemical companies that included Monsanto, were told to pay compensation.

At an international conference on Agent Orange held in Hanoi earlier this year, I was pleased to meet a number of veterans from Australia, Korea, New Zealand, Vietnam and the United States. I listened with great interest to their speeches recalling their time served in Vietnam and the part that some played in spraying the chemicals. It was very moving to hear an American speak of the death of his young son in his arms when his life support was turned off. His death was undoubtedly due to his father’s experiences in Vietnam.

His story can be repeated many thousands of times by the Vietnamese who went through the same tragic experience and who, today, are witnessing their children suffering from the consequences of chemicals used over thirty years ago.

The youngsters I see in my visits are those of the third generation, how many more generations will be born remains to be seen.

In Mid-December I will be in Ho Chi Minh City having been invited to the wedding of Nguyen Duc - a victim along with his brother Viet of the chemical - both were born conjoined in 1981, ten years after the spraying ended. They were separated in 1988 and I first saw them in 1989. Viet unfortunately remains very ill and requires constant medical attention.

The best wedding present that Duc and his fiancée Thanh Tuyen can receive is for the court to rule in favour of the Vietnamese victims.

Let Justice be done.

Yours sincerely

Len Aldis.
Secretary
Britain-Vietnam Friendship Society
Flat 2, 26 Tomlins Grove
London E3 4NX.
UK

Telephone: 0208 980 7146
Intl: 44+ 208 980 7146