Published on Sunday, April 23, 2000 by the Associated Press
Agent Orange Effects Still Being Felt 25 Years After End Of Vietnam War
by Paul Alexander
CAM TUYEN, Vietnam - Tran Van Tram and his wife thought they had escaped the worst of the Vietnam War when they fled their home as Quang Tri province became the front line.
But now they fear a small piece of the conflict lingers inside them, showing up in the birth defects suffered by four of their seven children.
"The war has been over for 25 years and we still have to suffer the consequences," Tram lamented.
Similar tales are common in the areas where 11 million gallons of defoliants like Agent Orange were sprayed by U.S. planes in 1962-71 to destroy jungle hiding communist supply lines, expose enemy bases and ruin crops needed to feed enemy troops.
While scientists are still studying possible links between Agent Orange's most toxic component - dioxin - and health problems suffered by those exposed to it and their children, many people consider it one of the war's more disturbing after-effects.
Vietnam's government estimates there are 1 million victims of Agent Orange among its 76 million people, including war veterans who were directly doused and civilians like Tram who live in affected areas as well as the children of both. Thousands of American servicemen also were exposed and blame ailments on the defoliant.
A U.S. Air Force study released March 29 reported the strongest evidence to date of a connection between exposure to Agent Orange and diabetes and possibly heart disease.
But there is no scientific evidence to prove that high rates of birth defects like cerebral palsy, cleft palates, cataracts, club feet and extra fingers or toes can be blamed on the defoliants. Nor is there any definitive link to the headaches, skin problems and other ailments reported by those directly exposed.
"There are many reasons for birth defects," said Nguyen Duc Loi, vice director of the Quang Tri provincial Department of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs. "But we can see that in cases where parents lived in areas that were heavily sprayed with Agent Orange, the 2.4 percent rate of birth defects is much higher than the national average of 0.6 percent."
He said that among the poor province's 564,000 people, 15,451 are suffering from the effects of toxic chemicals - 8,325 who were directly exposed, 6,881 of their children who suffer from birth defects and 245 grandchildren. Of the total, 3,852 people are dependent on outside aid and 6,727 can work but cannot survive on their own.
"Even though the local government has tried very hard, generally their living conditions are very poor and lower than average for the province," Loi said. "The province needs more assistance from abroad and inside the country to help take care of victims of the war."
Hoang Van Thong, vice chairman of the provincial Committee for Protection and Care of Children, says most families cannot afford specialized treatment for children with birth defects and that some youngsters may even be allowed to die as a result of the burden.
With dioxin slowly breaking down in the environment, the rates of birth defects are falling. Still, local officials warn people against eating fish oils and fats, where it seems to linger.
Talks are under way between the U.S. and Vietnamese governments on possible joint research into Agent Orange's effects. For now, the only help available is from the local and national governments, along with an international fund set up last year by the Vietnamese Red Cross.
"We thank God that while we have four children with birth defects, we're healthy so we can take care of them," Tram said as the four youngsters watched lethargically in the family's one-room concrete home.
The four all apparently suffer from mental retardation and leg problems that make walking difficult or impossible.
"My worry is what will happen when we grow old and can't work," Tram added. "Who will take care of them then?"
After the war ended in 1975, Tram, his wife, Dan, and their 3-year-old daughter returned to their ancestral land. Where triple-canopy jungle once reigned, the hills were bare brown, the trees withered to blackened stumps and the land reluctant to nurture crops.
So the couple, then 26 and 25, alternated spending several days at a time combing the nearby hills for leftover mines and bombs to scavenge for scrap metal. They ate what they could find and drank water from streams, which they think introduced dioxin into their bodies and damaged them.
A son born in 1977 was normal. Then came their second son, Thuan, in 1978 and the first hints that something might be wrong.
Another daughter born in 1980 was fine, so they figured Thuan's problems were an aberration. But their next three children all suffered from birth defects similar to Thuan's.
Similar stories abound in neighboring Thua Thien Hue province's A Luoi district, once home to the A So airstrip where defoliants were stored and parts of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that were heavily sprayed.
The terraced rice fields on the hills that took generations of backbreaking labor to sculpt have long been abandoned. No one dared to plant there after everything was doused and died. A tangle of hardy weeds shows that nature is slowly recovering.
Down in the valley adjacent to the airstrip, where rain carried most of the dioxin, residents say 272 of Dong Son village's 1,078 people are disabled from ailments they blame on Agent Orange.
One couple said the wife's 10 pregnancies included four miscarriages, two children with birth defects and an infant who died after six months.
Copyright © 2000 Associated Press