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Sunday, 3 March, 2002, 15:53 GMT
Agent Orange talks open in Vietnam
vietnam countryside
Agent Orange was used to destroy enemy tree cover
US and Vietnamese scientists are holding their first conference in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi on the effects of the controversial wartime herbicide, Agent Orange.

The one significant ghost remaining that we week to confront is the issue of Agent Orange and dioxin

US ambassador
The conference, which opened on Sunday, will look at research showing that dioxin - a chemical used in Agent Orange - is continuing to contaminate people 30 years after the US stopped spraying it over forests in south and central Vietnam.

The US ambassador in Vietnam, Raymond Burghardt, described the issue as the last significant ghost of the war, but said that determining its impact so long afterwards would be extraordinarily complex.

The project, known as Operation Ranch Hand, was designed to poison the jungle cover used by communist forces.

Studies have shown that, three decades later, dangerous concentrations remain in some parts of Vietnam.

'Frustrating fog'

Ambassador Burghardt said the US and Vietnam had dealt successfully with the issues of missing servicemen and the restoration of diplomatic and trade links.

boy with no legs
Birth defects are common in certain areas
Determining the impact of Agent Orange would be equally difficult, he said.

"Like much of our shared past, it is filled with controversy and emotion," he said. "There are few facts and findings that are universally agreed upon.

"Scientists have to struggle with the frustrating fog inherent in identifying increases in birth defects amid a pool of naturally occurring background genetic error."

Vietnamese Vice Minister of Health Le Ngoc Trong said he hoped the US and Vietnam would share future research costs.

Another ministry official said studies had shown "hot spots" where offspring of people sprayed displayed severe deformities.

Fish diet

The conference is due to hear the findings of a US scientist who tested the blood of 43 people living near a former southern air base used as a depot for spraying the chemical.

fishing boat
Fish can absorb harmful dioxins
Professor Arnold Schecter, of the School of Public Health at the University of Texas, says the tests show that the people of Bien Hoa have high levels of dioxin - as high as 413 parts per trillion compared to a national average of just two parts.

Professor Schecter blames the contamination on the community's diet of fish, as dioxin is known to be stored in fatty tissues. It has been linked to cancer and birth defects.

Several questions are expected to be raised.

  • Is enough known about dioxin? That is a question the powerful US veterans' lobby wants answered.
  • Is it possible to identify and clean up the affected sites? That is perhaps an uncomfortable question for Hanoi, which has had responsibility in the 25 years since the end of the war.

    The US sprayed 20 million gallons of Agent Orange

  • And, the question most pressing for the victims: how can they be helped?

Last year the two governments made an agreement to co-operate on researching the environmental and health issues around dioxin, and to hold this week's conference in Hanoi.

But the BBC's Clare Arthurs says the US is reluctant to acknowledge Vietnam's claims about a link between dioxin and more than a million people born with disabilities.

See also:

30 Dec 01 | Sci/Tech
Agent Orange hotspots located
03 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Deal reached on Agent Orange
15 Nov 00 | Asia-Pacific
Agent Orange's toxic legacy
19 Nov 99 | Crossing Continents
Vietnam War poison
13 Jul 00 | Business
US and Vietnam enter new era
09 Jan 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Vietnam
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