Dioxin damage Scientists urge study of the effects of Agent Orange
During the war in Vietnam more than 18 million gallons of dioxin-laden Agent Orange and other herbicides were sprayed over ten per cent of South Vietnam between 1961 and 1971, poisoning and defoliating millions of hectares of forest and croplands. In neighbouring Laos about half-a-million gallons of herbicide were sprayed over 80,000 hectares.
Professors Pfeiffer and Westing were the first two scientists to study the effects of Agent Orange spraying in Vietnam. Along with other scientists they contributed to the public pressure which put an end to the spraying in 1970. They are now informing the US public of the unwillingness of the US to join with its allies in funding crucial dioxin research in Vietnam.
The indifference of the US is hardly surprising. As early as 1961 the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US Air Force warned that: 'Care must be taken to assure that the US does not become the target for charges of employing chemical or biological warfare. International repercussions could be serious.'
According to Pfeiffer the sprayings of Agent Orange and crop-destruction programmes were aimed at depriving the peasants of their food supply and forcing them to move to areas dominated by the South Vietnamese. By sustaining this policy of 'generating refugees' the Pentagon hoped to deny the national-liberation forces the peasants' support, leaving them without a rural society in which to live.
In Hanoi the chief surgeon and director of the Viet Duc Hospital, Dr Ton That Tung, raised the alarm that contamination by the dioxin in Agent Orange was causing birth defects, liver cancer, chloracne and other health problems in southern Vietnam. He visited the US to gather support for a large-scale study of the population because: 'My country does not have the resources to do it alone.' He testified before a Congressional committee, but it made little difference. However, scientists worldwide in co-operation with their Vietnamese colleagues have been gathering evidence that gives the lie to the Agent Orange cover-up. At Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, doctors see a child born with a congenital defect about every day-and-a-half, down from one a day in the 1980s but still too high. A report in the American Journal of Public Health stated that dioxin levels in breastmilk in southern Vietnam were 50 times greater than in the unsprayed North.
Calls for research into the effects of dioxin contamination in Vietnam are backed by the knowledge that it will help to deal with the threat posed by widespread prevalence of dioxins in the environment in the US and elsewhere. Dioxins are the most potent carcinogen ever tested and are produced as a by-product of heating or burning chlorine-based chemicals. The primary sources today are the pulp and paper industry, municipal and hospital wastes, incinerators, herbicide and pesticide producers and agricultural users.
At present the US Government continues to shy away from funding research in Vietnam because it will mean admitting to chemical warfare.