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Vietnam, US Still in Conflict over Agent Orange Burden

by Ben Stocking

CAM TUYEN, Vietnam — Her children are 21 and 16 years old, but they still cry through the night, tossing and turning in pain, sucking their thumbs for comfort.

Tran Thi Gai’s daughters were born with disabilities in a Vietnamese village where Agent Orange was used. (David Guttenfelder/Associated Press) Tran Thi Gai, who rarely gets any sleep herself, sings them a mournful lullaby. “Can you feel my love for you? Can you feel my sorrow for you? Please don’t cry.’’

Gai’s children — both with twisted limbs and in wheelchairs — were born in a village that was drenched with Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. She believes their health problems were caused by dioxin, a highly toxic chemical in the herbicide, which US troops used to strip communist forces of ground cover and food.

Thirty-five years after the end of the Vietnam War, its most contentious legacy is Agent Orange. Eighty-two percent of Vietnamese surveyed in a recent Associated Press-GfK Poll said the United States should be doing more to help people suffering from illnesses associated with the herbicide, including children with birth defects.

After President George W. Bush pledged to work on the issue on a Hanoi visit in 2006, Congress approved $9 million mostly to address environmental cleanup of Agent Orange. But while the United States has provided assistance to Vietnamese with disabilities regardless of their cause, it maintains that there is no clear link between Agent Orange and health problems.

Vietnamese officials say the United States must make a much bigger financial commitment — $6 million has been allocated — to adequately address the problems unleashed by Agent Orange.

“Six million dollars is nothing compared to the consequences left behind by Agent Orange,’’ said Le Ke Son, deputy general administrator of Vietnam’s Environmental Administration. “How much does one Tomahawk missile cost?’’

Between 1962 and 1971, the US military sprayed roughly 11 million gallons of Agent Orange across large swaths of southern Vietnam. Dioxin stays in soil and the sediment at the bottom of lakes and rivers for generations. It can enter the food supply through the fat of fish and other animals.

Vietnam says as many as 4 million of its citizens were exposed to the herbicide and as many as 3 million have suffered illnesses caused by it.

But the US government says Vietnamese are too quick to blame Agent Orange for birth defects that can be caused by malnutrition or other environmental factors.

“Scientists around the world have done a lot of research on dioxin and its possible health effects,’’ said Michael Michalak, the US ambassador in Hanoi. “There is disagreement as to what’s real and what isn’t, about what the possible connections are.’’
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