Pesticide and Environmental Update
Dioxin Contamination in Vietnam
Following the release of a study by U.S. and Vietnamese researchers revealing "alarmingly high" levels of dioxin in the blood of residents of a southern Vietnamese city, U.S. and Vietnamese government scientists agreed last month to hold a joint conference on the human health and environmental effects of Agent Orange. The United States sprayed millions of gallons of Agent Orange and other defoliants on Vietnam from 1962 to 1971. The chemicals contained TCDD, the most dangerous form of dioxin. Dioxin is a highly toxic organochlorine and known human carcinogen.
The study, conducted jointly by University of Texas Professor Arnold Schecter and Le Cao Dai, executive director of Hanoi's Red Cross, appeared in the May 2001 issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. It reported that thirty years after the end of Agent Orange spraying, residents of the southern Vietnamese city of Bien Hoa—even those who didn't live there during the Vietnam War or were born after the war ended—show highly elevated levels of dioxin in their blood. Blood samples from twenty Bien Hoa residents showed dioxin levels up to 135 times higher than samples taken from Hanoi residents.
Schecter said such levels increased the risk of dioxin-related illnesses, including cancer, lower IQ and emotional problems for children, and spontaneous abortions and birth defects if the mother was exposed.
Bien Hoa was once home to a huge U.S. base where a major spill of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War likely contaminated a lake where locals fish and swim. Some suspect that the contamination of local residents has been caused by eating fish from the lake; however, pork and duck meat should also be tested according to Schechter.
Schecter estimates that about a million Vietnamese have been exposed to elevated levels of Agent Orange. However, he said that the current state of research makes it impossible to tell how many have been made ill.
In talks in Hanoi in July, U.S. and Vietnamese government scientists agreed to organize a pilot study to screen soil and sediment for dioxin over the next few months, and to hold a joint conference next year.
As a result of the agreement, US$850,000 of existing U.S. Congressional funding will likely be made available for joint research, and more funding may be allocated next year. Although Schecter called the agreement "long overdue good news," he stressed that work should focus on the "public health emergency" of Vietnamese exposed to dioxin from Agent Orange. Instead of the proposed prolonged surveys of soil and sediment samples, Shechter strongly advocated concentrating on immediate widespread testing of blood and food samples.
Since animal fat is the source of 95% of dioxins in humans, Shechter argues that there is an urgent need to determine which foods are contaminated. He said the longer research is delayed, the more people would be exposed. "This would be considered a public health emergency in the United States and immediate action taken," he added.
Analysts say Vietnam is concerned that any evidence of food contamination could hit its seafood and meat exports. At the same time, the United States is wary of having to pay compensation if large numbers of people are found to have been exposed to dioxin and cleanup of contaminated areas is required.
The U.S. government argues that there is still no solid scientific proof Agent Orange was responsible for a wide range of maladies, including tens of thousands of mental and physical birth defects. Domestically, however, the U.S. government has already granted 21,000 compensation claims to Vietnam War veterans--many exposed to Agent Orange--who have developed soft tissue cancer, Hodgkin's disease, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, diabetes and other illnesses.
In a related story, the Institute of Medicine--a non-governmental advisory body to the U.S. government--released a report in April 2001showing "suggestive, but not conclusive" evidence linking veterans' Agent Orange exposure to their children's development of acute myelgenous leukemia, a fast-spreading form of leukemia that originates in bone marrow cells. Following the release of the study, President Bush directed the Veteran's Affairs Secretary to prepare legislation to assist children with the disease. Also, last month the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously voted to expand the list of service-related illnesses for which Vietnam war veterans can claim compensation to include diabetes.
Sources: Environmental Media Services Press Release "Study Finds Evidence of Ongoing Agent Orange Contamination in Vietnamese City," May 14, 2001; Reuters, David Brunnstrom, July 2, 3, 4, 2001; Randolph E. Schmid "Agent Orange, Leukemia Link Studied" Associated Press, April 2001; Jim Abrams, "House Oks Extended Veterans Benefits" Associated Press, July 31, 2001.